Friday, July 31, 2015

If You Get It Right, But Do It Without Love, It's Worthless

Here's a perfect illustration of what it's like to have true ideas and knowledge, but fail to love your neighbor:

Paul says even if he had all knowledge but didn’t love, he would amount to nothing. In other words, you can be brilliant and worthless.
It would be like a great basketball player who never misses a shot but keeps shooting into the opponent’s basket. He may say, “I was five for five today from the three-point line,” but his teammates would respond, “But you’re killing our team! You’re shooting at the wrong basket!” He answers confidently, “But I did not miss.”
That is the kind of attitude that Paul is confronting here. You might be brilliant, but you’re killing our team. You’re not building up the brothers; you’re making them feel dumb and wounding their conscience. You’re not stirring them up to love and good deeds. You just keep making them feel inadequate. By your knowledge, this weaker brother is being destroyed! - Francis Chan, "Think Hard, Stay Humble"
"You're killing our team." That captures what it's like if you win the arguments but fail at connecting with the other person in love. There is no virtue in being right unless you also display Christ in a way that shows people why He is so wonderful. The text Francis Chan was speaking of is 1 Corinthians 8:1–3:
"Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God."
Chan explains the passage well: The Corinthians 'in the know' have been "saying, 'You know what? We all know. We all possess this knowledge.' It had an attitude: 'Come on. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as idols.' Paul says that this kind of knowledge puffs up. It’s all about you. It’s cold and stale and all about you having the knowledge. In other words, Paul says, 'An idol doesn’t have any real existence. We know that. You’re right.' But then in verse 7 he says, 'However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.'
"He says some of the Corinthian believers have this knowledge, but not all of them do. Some aren’t ready yet for the application of such knowledge. And the “stronger,” more knowledgeable believers need to be mindful of where their “weaker” brothers are and not have this attitude toward them: 'Well, we all know that.' This type of knowledge puffs up. But love builds up."
Chan really hit home when he described the comments he sees Christians posting on blogs. Think about what you put on Facebook, blogs, etc.: does it pass the test of being totally directed at loving and building up your neighbor? Chan summed up the biblical purpose for knowledge this way: "Our knowledge should be pressed into the service of love. It should serve to build each other up. That’s what love does. It builds up. It looks to help others, not hurt them."
Otherwise, all your efforts to be accurate and biblical will be meaningless. Paul didn't pull punches about this: he said his whole ministry was worthless if he failed the test of love. "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." (1 Cor. 13:2-3) (emphasis mine).
Don't let your labor and effort to "get it right" end up being meaningless. If it isn't made complete by love, it does no good to your neighbor's soul. Which means it made no difference at all. Our goal is not to be proved right. Our goal is to prove the truth of God's love by being a living example of it, so that we bring people into communion with the God who can illuminate all darkness and transform the mind and heart.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Every Christian Action or Argument Has One Aim: Love

This is the center of your ministry. And it is all too often forgotten.

Our essential purpose on earth is to bring each person to know Christ and to bring glory to God.
Yet this mission is pursued in only one way acceptable to God: through love.
If you can't do it with love, don't do it.
Every apostle and leader who wrote the letters in the NT agreed on the centrality of love. Each one is quoted below. Above all, it was Jesus who said: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

"And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." 1 Cor. 13:2

"The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and
a good conscience and a sincere faith." 1 Tim. 1:5

"We put no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions ...the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech and the power of God[.]" 2 Corinthians 6:3-7

"And above all these put on love, which binds
everything together in perfect harmony." Col. 3:14

"Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth."
1 John 3:18

"If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar;
for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen
cannot love God whom he has not seen." 1 John 4:20

"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom
as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another."
Gal. 5:13

"Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way
into him who is the head, into Christ[.]" Eph. 4:15

"And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Eph. 5:2

"By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to
lay down our lives for the brothers." 1 John 3:16

"Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins." 1 Peter 4:8

"for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of
power and love and self-control." 2 Tim. 1:7

"Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one
who loves another has fulfilled the law." Rom. 13:8

"For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor;
therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." Rom. 13:9-10

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever
loves has been born of God and knows God." 1 John 4:7

"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works[.]"
Hebrews 10:24

"If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall
love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well." James 2:8

"But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." 1 Thes. 5:8

"Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." 2 Tim. 1:13

"If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,
but have not love, I gain nothing." 1 Cor. 13:3

"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts
for anything, but only faith working through love." Gal. 5:6

"Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example
in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity." 1 Tim. 4:12

"keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our
Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life." Jude 1:21

"and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all, as we do for you[.]" 1 Thes. 3:12

"We love because he first loved us." 1 John 4:19

"Let all that you do be done in love." 1 Cor. 16:14

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why It's So Difficult to Talk God and Planned Parenthood or God and Transgenderism

If our idea of God makes no claims about what reality exists for or why our bodies were made this way, then we don't really accept the idea of a God. We haven't left Him room in our minds to be God.
Yet the most important thing Christians can do with this is to be moved with compassion. When you see someone whose beliefs put them in this dilemma, you must realize how painful and heartbreaking it is to be told theologically that you can't embrace God in your life if you hold to these ideas. Christians must feel in their hearts the ache and despondency brought on by a belief that your "truth" or identity makes you incompatible with the Church. Such people need the Gospel desperately; they need to know that God specializes in changing those who embrace Him, not embracing those who first change.
I rewrote this post. I had to.

When I first put it up, it ended with the conclusion stated at the top, and an appeal to Christians to engage people on these issues by focusing on displaying who Christ is rather than focusing on the issue itself. That's still there, but what I realized quickly is that something vitally important was missing. What was missing was the empathy of understanding just how painful it is for people to find themselves in this theological bind, and what it does to their souls to have it implied that the life they embrace is incompatible with God. The Gospel is a message of hope. It is meant to bring hope, not despair. So if anyone takes anything from this post, I hope it is the paragraph in italics above, and the new ending.

We've all had these conversations with friends (or sat silently listening with no idea where to begin) when the transgender question comes up, or when abortion or Planned Parenthood are the subject. Most of them tend to follow the same track of arguments or attitudes so steadily it's like we're holding a script. We eventually develop an inner resignation that these conversations are all going to end the same way. But we still must try. Do what you can, and as Charles Spurgeon would say, "believe in the Holy Spirit." We take courage that God does supernatural work in people's hearts and minds beyond the words we use.

Understanding why people feel the way they do is also essential. If we don't take the time to get behind the emotions and arguments and understand what beliefs drive the person to insist on one thing and reject another, we often underestimate how broad the disagreement really is. That's one reason we often end up talking past each other: we haven't realized that the other person has fundamental beliefs about reality that make it impossible for them to agree with us. We also may miss an opportunity to address those fundamental beliefs themselves, which could solve a lot of conflict.

Rod Dreher just posted helpful insights into how abortion and transgender identity affect the ability to relate to God. He titles it The Metaphysics of Caitlyn & Planned Parenthood. (n.b. For those unconsciously trying to 'fit' me into a thought category, I don't regularly read The American Conservative. I read Rod Dreher.)

Here's the crux, although I recommend it all: 
The culture now seems to have accepted as self-evidently true that one’s gender is whatever one wants it to be. To assert this implies a metaphysical view that is radically at odds with classical (including Christian) metaphysics, which holds that nature is not mere stuff that we can fashion as we like, and impose our own meaning onto it, but rather that nature in some mysterious way reflects things as they actually are. ...the stand you take has everything to do with what you think it means to be human, and how you relate the human being to the natural order. Modernity generally sees the material world as meaningless matter that we can fashion however we like. The older world — including the world of Christianity — teaches that God is intimately involved with Creation, and that we therefore have strict limits governing how we should treat it, including our bodies. A big problem is that far too many modern Christians have lost that older, classical Christian metaphysics, and no longer view the body and nature as bound inextricably to the divine. The conservative Christian may draw the limits of exploiting nature in a different place than, say, Caitlyn Jenner or Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Deborah Nucatola, but there may well be a shared metaphysics among them. [Nucatola is the Planned Parenthood executive caught on hidden camera discussing how to maximize dismembering infants during abortions to get the most saleable organs and tissue.]
Christian, here is why thinking this way affects your faith so much: For those who think this way about life, there is actually no room for a God who has any authority or involvement in the world. If all of reality is raw material that humans should be free to shape in any way they desire, what role is left in their minds for God to play? The basic outlook they have on life denies there is any design at all, because to believe that the way things were made tells us nothing about what we must do with them, or how they function, is to deny any intent or purpose behind what exists.  It also denies there is any rule or boundary except what the will of man desires to do with life. What is a god who provides no purpose for making the world, exercises no authority separate from what we believe in our own minds, and cares not at all how we use reality? Nothing but a tender thought in the hearts of those who find him comforting, much like Santa Claus or Peter Pan. He can have any qualities we want him to have; but the main thing is that his existence requires nothing of us.

Such a god passes through our thoughts as a mere companion, perhaps not exactly an equal but certainly no one for whom we must change our plans. It's like living down the street from a billionaire. He has vastly more resources and we know who to turn to if we need help, but we each have our own houses and our own business. He is simply available when we're interested, but never needed when we're not. In short, if our idea of God makes no claims about what reality exists for or why our bodies were made this way, then we don't really accept the idea of a God. To be that, we would have to admit He had some kind of authority over life, and thus a purpose behind using that authority, which means a design and purpose behind why He created what He has made. But a belief in shaping nature to our own sense of identity is completely incompatible with anything resembling this God.

How Does this Help Us Talk to People?

First, take the conversation off of the topic and, instead, go back to who God is and how we relate to Him. Sometimes the most effective way of transforming thinking is to focus on getting a clear view of God back at the center of our universe, and a clear view of who we are to Him. Of course, it doesn't ordinarily help to say, "Your problem on abortion is you don't understand God." The point is not to tie the two together at the moment, but instead to have a different objective in what you decide to talk about in your relationship with this person. Their biggest problem is not what they think about Caitlyn Jenner. It's how they see God. Think over how this affects what you will say next time.

Second, your attitude must be compassionate: By all means, use your minds with all your might to discern and identify whether people are boxed in by these ideas. But take care that your way of discussing this doesn't make them feel shut out. When you get to the heart of it, most people have very deep pain behind their reasons for what they believe. You can't argue people out of pain. They need to be healed. Bring the Gospel as a solution. Show them the God who transcends all of our feelings and ideas so greatly that He is able to give us a new vision of life and identity in Him. Do everything you can to display the glory of God that is more precious than every desire on earth.

Make sure they understand that God specializes in changing those who embrace Him, not embracing those who first change. The dilemma may not have to be resolved first before they behold God and desire to know Him. Our best work is often not in changing people's minds, but in bringing them to God and helping them fall so deeply in love with Him that they surrender their ideas and desires to Him and welcome the transformation He makes in their hearts.

None of this happens quickly, and there are plenty of people who profess to know Christ who still hold beliefs about their bodies and their babies that don't fit with God at all. But you are much more likely to help them past this if they love God enough first to be willing to understand and accept what He reveals about reality. And for this very reason, make sure you also take Dreher's test yourself. Does your view of nature or the way we use the world have the same flaws, and just "draw the limits of exploiting nature in a different place than, say, Caitlyn Jenner or Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Deborah Nucatola"? Does pondering this article reveal something to you about your own views of God?

Monday, July 20, 2015

To Know You Are Loved By God Is Essential for Performance

The "performance trap" I described last time is what happens when we go off the road halfway through the Gospel and start thinking that Christ saved us from our sins (and thus punishment), but now we need to achieve the kind of personal holiness that will give us confidence to stand before God. We can easily develop a perception that our prayers to God must be made when we are flourishing in holy living and excelling in sanctified behavior if we want to be heard. In other words, our faulty idea of progression of faith looks like this:

     faith >> salvation >> obedience and sanctification >> increasing acceptance by God (justification)

What I want to emphasize here is that it is essential to our productivity and obedience for us to believe we are accepted apart from our productivity and obedience. Believing we must labor and purify ourselves with all our might in order to gain favor with God doesn't make us more faithful and productive. It makes us legalistic, and eventually leads many Christians to a sort of hopelessness and apathy as they realize they can never meet the standards they've aimed at. The Scriptures tell us the having assurance of our acceptance actually keeps us fruitful: "And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." (Hebrews 6:11-12).

In the last post I unpacked Jerry Bridges and The Discipline of Grace to show that salvation and justification (acceptance by God) are inseparably linked. They both occur immediately when faith is placed in Our Savior Jesus Christ and God's promise of life and salvation to all who believe in Him. Every ounce of performance, every good work of obedience, all come after we are justified by faith.

The progression of Christian faith actually looks like this:
     faith >> salvation and complete acceptance by God (justification) >> obedience and sanctification

Here's a good summary: "The connection between the sinner and the Savior is trust, not improvement of behavior. That comes later. It’s this order that gives hope. "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Romans 3:28). The basis of this wild and wonderful hope (the ungodly justified) is "Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4, literal translation). Through faith alone God counts the ungodly as righteous because of Christ. "For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Let all who are paralyzed by the weight of sin and the powerlessness to change turn in here." John Piper, Justification By Faith: The Remedy for Paralyzed Sinners

Basically, performance happens because we have been given a new heart and spirit upon believing by faith. But God, having enabled us now to do good works and love righteousness, doesn't wait for us to get a proven track record before fully accepting us. He does it immediately. The joyful and liberating truth that our acceptance actually comes before our performance is scattered throughout the Bible, such as Titus 3:4-8, where Paul grounds the reason that people should devote themselves to good works in the fact that they have already been saved apart from works and justified by grace. Or Ephesians 2:8-10, where Paul declares we were saved by grace, not as a result of any works, but as a free gift - so that we could then do the good works God created us to do. The good news of acceptance is so essential to our being motivated to do good works that we are assured in numerous places of our acceptance by God before being urged to go on and do good works. So get as confident as you can that God loves you and accepts you completely in Christ.  It's good for you.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Performance vs. Grace: Is Your Best Good Enough?

The cure of all shame and insecurity is believing God fully accepts you in the Gospel - just as you are right now - and realizing He will never change His mind.
I mean to deal more broadly and deeply here with the problem I raised in the previous post. Let me start by making it clear that I do not believe obedience/works of faith are actually at odds with grace in Christian theology. What I mean by "performance vs. grace" is that this is how many Christians sometimes see their experience of faith. Sometimes they feel that they can never measure up to a standard of holiness and perfection, and therefore get depressed and discouraged by shame, or they feel that all the teachings of grace and forgiveness don't fit with the commands to do good works and to be holy. This leads to a creeping insecurity that we really aren't fully accepted by God unless we 'complete' our faith by getting really good at obedience. That's what Jerry Bridges calls "the performance trap." 

I know of no better or more encouraging antidote to this trap than The Discipline of Grace, which Bridges wrote to help Christians who want to accept the free grace of God, but feel burdened by their inability to meet our expectations of Christian behavior and holiness. If you've been weighed down by this burden as I have, I hope a very short unpacking of his solution will convince you to get this book and savor it. It is endlessly encouraging.

First, Bridges identifies the problem with the performance trap: Christians accept that we are saved and forgiven only by faith in Christ, and "readily acknowledge that we can never through our own obedience attain a righteousness that is sufficient for salvation. But then as believers we act as if we can live lives acceptable to God." In short, "we know God's blessings come to us through Christ, but we also have this vague but very real notion that they are also conditioned on our behavior." The trap is that we have separated 'salvation in Christ' from 'acceptance by God.' We have fallen into a misguided feeling that, although Christ fully and finally saved us from our sins and purchased our eternal life, we aren't completely acceptable to God or approved by God unless we perform well.

We have all felt this. Bridges proves it brilliantly by posing two scenarios that he calls the 'good day' and the 'bad day.' On the good day, you really keep the commandments visibly and you make a lot of time for the spiritual disciplines, and you feel good about your performance as a Christian. On the bad day, you neglect the spiritual disciplines, you don't do good things you think you should have done, and you feel inadequate as a Christian. Then a situation comes up where you need to rely on God's favor and help. Do you feel more confident that God will help you when you've had a good day? And on the bad day, are you hesitant and doubtful about whether God will help you?

Most Christians have to admit that, in daily life, their honest answers are yes and yes. Bridges found after asking this to numerous audiences that: "Invariably, about 80 percent indicate that they ... would be less confident of God's blessing ... at the end of a bad day than they would after a good one."

That is not how the Gospel works. The Gospel proclaims that we are not only saved from sin and death by the sacrifice Christ made, but we are also fully and absolutely accepted and loved by God through being clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ. That's what the term 'justification' means. Salvation refers to our deliverance from sin and judgment, but justification refers to our receiving the acceptance before God that Christ Himself enjoys. "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand[.]" (Romans 5:1-2). What we receive by faith is not just the removal of the negative consequences of sin, but the gift of the positive benefits of full acceptance by God. When you see "justification" in Scripture, that's the glorious and joyful news it should bring to mind.

This is the reason that the author of Hebrews exhorts us in Hebrews 4:14-16 and 10:19-22 to draw near to God's throne with complete confidence. We have nothing to be ashamed of in His presence, because He accepts us not on the basis of our own performance or 'goodness' but on the basis of Christ's holiness and perfection. Our problem is not whether we have favor or acceptance with God; the problem is in our perception of how God feels about us. Bridges declares: "This standing in Christ's righteousness is never affected to any degree by our good-day or bad-day performance. ... however, our perception of our standing before God will vary" based on how we feel about our own performance. But it shouldn't.

Bridges counters this perception by daily reminders of the Gospel. The Gospel is not just how we come to faith in Christ, but it is how we are sustained and kept in Christ (and in God's favor) each and every day. Bridges explains that many Christians stop thinking about the Gospel once they become believers, and start getting caught up with spiritual disciplines (which are essential) and the error that these disciplines improve our acceptance by God. But they don't. They improve our enjoyment of God, and they improve our fruitfulness for God in doing good, but our acceptance is never for one second dependent on how we perform or obey. In fact, Paul spells this out firmly to the Galatian church that had begun to believe their works made them more complete as Christians: "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" No. Even miracles, Paul says, are works of the Spirit brought on by faith, not by performance. (Gal. 3:1-6).

The cure of all shame and insecurity is believing God fully accepts you in the Gospel - just as you are right now - and realizing He will never change His mind. The Discipline of Grace is one way to learn to believe this and to apply it every day. Don't approach your spiritual growth with uncertainty about how your Father feels about you. Pursue godliness with the security and assurance that your Father loves you completely and accepts you no matter how each day works out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Paradox of Winning by Failing - How Sinful Christians Persevere and Thrive

If you know that there is a devil who seeks to trap and outwit you every day (see the last post), one life-changing lesson from this is that none of your struggles with temptation are isolated incidents. They are all part of an ongoing war where the devil is either gaining ground on you or losing it. If you don't fight back, you will get overrun. Practically, the pursuit of holiness in the Christian life is not in being perfect but in continuing the fight against all sin and disobedience. C.S. Lewis describes it this way: "Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible." Mere Christianity, Part 48 (p. 132).

But we have a problem: we keep failing in this fight. One of the biggest sources of confusion and discouragement for Christians is how we can enjoy our relationship with God and feel His favor and approval when we keep 'letting Him down.' Paul agonizes over this in Romans 7. The solution is realizing that we have the wrong idea about what God expects from us in this relationship. He doesn't expect our part to be that we never fail. In fact, He expects that we will fail. (1 John 2:1-21 John 1:7-10). An essential part of our relationship with God is that we are dependent on Him for grace. We cannot stand by our own efforts or merit. He must supply the perfection, which He did by uniting us to Christ as a Savior who both perfectly kept the law and bore all our punishment for failing to keep it. Our part is to trust in that work of substitution and believe that we are accepted by God because of what Christ has done.

Astonishingly, the more we are willing to admit our weakness and put all our hope in what Christ has done, the more honor and glory we bring to God. Even when we have sinned, we can still be victorious in the fight against the devil by showing faith in God and proclaiming His work of salvation. That is the fight that we are really involved in against sin: the fight to keep trusting God by faith and proclaiming in every way possible that He is good and right and just. If you repent of your sin and cry out in faith to God for mercy, your trust in God's faithfulness frustrates the devil's design in trapping you in sin. You cannot sin enough to exceed the sufficiency and perfection of Christ's payment for your sins or God's grace in forgiving you; the only way you can fail is to stop believing in the greatness of this Savior or the grace of this God.
"When we fail, if we respond to it rightly, we honor God and bring glory to Him."
In short, when we fail, if we respond to it rightly, we honor God and bring glory to Him by the act of trusting in the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus Christ. There is victory even in our failure. It is, of course, much better not to do wrong in the first place. We also bring glory to Him by obeying Him in trust and faith, and we don't deliberately sin just to give an occasion for grace. But there is no getting away from the fact that we are imperfect and pulled in different directions by various passions and temptations. We are going to fail. We will always be dependent on God to cover our failures with His grace and forgiveness, which we have because Christ bore our sins. There is a vast difference, however, between striving with all our might not to fail, even though we stumble, and simply resigning ourselves to failure and not making any effort to resist it. To do the second is to simply take sides with sin and the enemy. To do the first is taking sides with God and declaring Him righteous.

If you fall short of the standards, yet affirm the standards as right and true, then you still honor them for what they are. But giving up on trying is the same as saying the standards don't matter. It's the same as saying God is so unimportant and His commandments are so unnecessary that they aren't worth bothering much about. It is also true that if you don't try, you will sin much more and become much more lawless and reckless than if you try with all your might to resist at every turn. Yet I think this is not the most important point. Although it is evil to sin more rather than less, I am convinced that the more destructive thing, and the thing that dishonors God more, is to treat Him as if He doesn't matter. To resist the lure of evil is good because it limits the evil that you commit, but it is even more important that resisting the lure of evil is an act of declaring God to be right and trustworthy. When you resist sin, you pledge allegiance to God. In effect, you worship Him and honor Him as Lord. It is an act of faith.

One practical effect this should have on your faith is this: to not look at your failures and your sins as failing grades in the test of being a Christian. Look instead at who you gave glory to in the fight. A Christian who falls into sin, yet resists bravely and stubbornly for some time, is not conspiring with the enemy. He or she is fighting against the enemy, yet coming to the end of their strength and being overrun. If you fall defending a hill, you still honor the Lord for whom you fight. There is a crucial difference between laying down your weapons and welcoming the enemy, or resisting the enemy until your strength is spent. The worship and devotion that you ought to give to God is first to avoid sin and remain faithful, but second to honor Him in any of your failings by declaring Him right and confessing your need for forgiveness. God does not expect perfect soldiers; He expects soldiers who continue to return again and again to His banner. The only godly and righteous thing you can do when you have fallen in your fight against the devil is to pick up your weapons and get back in the fight of faith.
"The only godly and righteous thing you can do when you have fallen in your fight against the devil is to pick up your weapons and get back in the fight of faith."
Finally, there is a very important reason why I don't say that your response to sin should be to commit to NEVER DO IT AGAIN. Many well-meaning Christians can get very uncomfortable with the kind of things I have just said, because they are on guard against lies such as antinomian teaching (literally, "lawlessness," the error of thinking obedience to God doesn't matter because sin is all forgiven). If you lived your entire Christian life of faith wrapped only in the principles I just laid out, you might go very far from Jesus indeed - just as you would if you spent your entire Christian life focused on avoiding antinomianism at all costs. There is much more to it. All the pieces need to function in cooperation. For instance, to balance what I am saying, see this reflection on why "You Just Might Be an Antinomian" - and why you'd rather not be one. Don't stop reading and thinking about how to attack this problem from all angles. Don't stop reading the whole Bible. Surround yourself with the Gospel.

But the reason I reject the "NEVER DO IT AGAIN" school of commitment is that it is a lie. If your response to falling into sin is to grit your teeth and swear that you will make yourself stronger and never make the same mistake again, you have just put your trust in yourself instead of in God. The shortest route the devil can take to destroy you is to get you to stop depending on a Savior. This takes the focus off of faith in Christ and puts it on you. Your 'will' becomes the hero of the story. It is exactly the opposite of the victory of honoring God in your failures. This detour can only lead to two places: legalism, in which you become convinced of your own holiness as you carefully track how strong your performance in keeping the commandments has been, all the while being blind to the depth of your sins (especially the pride and self-righteousness); or despair, as you realize how impossible it is for you to keep the commandments and you crumble under the weight of shame over your failures. Both of these errors are destroyed by the Gospel. The Gospel proclaims at once that you are sinful and cannot make yourself holy, yet also declares that if you trust in God and honor Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This is how an imperfect Christian can have victory in Christ. To understand this more deeply and helpfully, get Jerry Bridges' book The Discipline of Grace, which confronts both these errors and charts the Gospel path between them. It is the kind of book that may change your life.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Welcome to Spiritual Warfare - Feel Free to Fight Back at Any Time

"Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not."
Aragorn, "The Two Towers"

In two recent posts here and here I emphasized how the devil is actively trying to deceive us and trick us. I've noticed that some Christians don't seem to think about this very realistically. They either seem to think that they're on the sidelines watching a match between the devil and God, in which the outcome is important to us but which doesn't really affect our daily lives, or they think of the devil as an abstract concept of evil instead of a living being that could threaten any one of us personally. Perhaps you're the type of Christian who doesn't give the devil much thought on an average day. I want to change your mind.

What believers in Christ need to know about the devil is summed up very well in a recent sermon by Andrew Knight. Here is what Scripture tells us about the devil's active war on Christians:

First, we need to know that Satan is on the loose. He’s on a leash, but he is running free (Ephesians 2:1–3). I wish we could have an accurate view of reality here. We see it in Daniel 10:13, where the angel delayed in coming to Daniel because he was withstanding Satan for 21 days. We see it in Job, We see it in 1 Chronicles 19:1, when Satan incited David to make a very prideful and sinful decision. And this is just from the Old Testament.
Second, we need to know that believers have a target on their chest. Satan is not at war with God—Satan already lost that fight. Now he passively fights with unbelievers by just keeping them blinded (2 Corinthians 4:4). He also actively fights with believers.

The opposition is real and direct. Paul declares that he was prevented from coming to see a church in one city because “Satan hindered us.” (1 Thes. 2:18). He warns believers to put on the armor of God so they can withstand the "schemes of the devil." (Eph. 6:11). Paul also warns that the devil is trying to catch believers and unbelievers alike in a snare. (1 Tim. 3:7; 2 Tim. 2:26). Peter says the devil is prowling around "like a roaring lion" to devour people. (1 Peter 5:8). And James tells us to personally resist the devil. (James 4:7). Andrew's sermon has many more helpful examples and is well worth listening to or reading.

Like it or not, you are on a battlefield. There is no choice of whether or not to be engaged in a struggle. The struggle is all around you and is aimed at you whether you fight back or not. You are being shot at even now. The only choice is about whether you stand there helpless and let yourself be a target, or whether you fight back and protect yourself.

One of the lovely paradoxes of Christianity is that while we strive for the meekest, gentlest, and most peaceful relationships with other people, we are also called on to be fierce and vigilant and aggressive in spiritual warfare. We are commanded to resist the devil – to fight back against his efforts.  This is no mere admonition to ignore the devil’s enticements or to refuse to listen to him. James tells us to resist him until he flees from us, and Peter tells us that the one we're resisting is like a prowling lion. You don’t resist a marauding lion by simply refusing to listen to him. You have to resist with force. Similarly, Paul describes our daily life as wrestling against spiritual forces. He affirms that our warfare is not against flesh and blood; we don’t fight a battle against other human beings. Our struggle is a pitched battle against spiritual enemies, the forces of evil that plague even the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:10-13). In other words, if you aren't thinking of the devil as someone you have to resist and guard against every day, you're not thinking of being a Christian the way the apostles and Christ's disciples all did.

Knowing the devil is actively out to catch you in a trap and seize on any opportunity to make you fall changes how you look at the troubles of life. Although it's a shameful thing to give in to an outburst of anger, or to take your time exploring thoughts about temptation before finally pulling the plug on them, we tend to imagine there are little zones of neutrality where our sins don't do any real damage. Maybe that's in the privacy of our own homes, or in the privacy of our own minds. But when you realize there is an enemy crouching nearby, just waiting for you to slip up, you have to take life much more seriously. You have an enemy whom Paul says is trying to outwit you (2 Cor. 2:11), and actively looking for an opportunity (Eph. 4:27). This means that giving in to that temptation you're thinking about isn't just an indiscretion or an indulgence or a slip-up: it is the devil’s way of taking you out – of making you unfit and hypocritical and setting you up for humiliation so you'll be ashamed and full of doubt. When you know your enemy is just waiting for you to slip up, you would be a fool to go ahead and take the bait. See the trap for what it is, and stand and fight.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Sins You’re Keeping in Your Back Pocket

The accessibility of sin can be intoxicating. Often the actual collapse into sin is preceded by a long period of sneaking glances at it, and carrying in the back of our minds a double-minded sense of pride in the feeling that we have both options available to us. We allow the corrupting idea to linger in our minds that we have security for our satisfaction – if worshiping God and obeying His instructions isn’t giving us fulfillment, we always have the other option available near at hand. We’re rich.

Of course, many of us don’t tell ourselves this is what we’re doing. We don’t come to God while consciously saying we’re keeping our options open. We earnestly try to enjoy God and serve Him wholeheartedly. But we aren’t. We haven’t burned our bridges and completely committed ourselves to depending on God alone for our satisfaction and joy. Although we tell ourselves we aren’t trying to have it both ways, what we’re holding onto is the illusion that we have choices. We hold on to the appealing fantasy that perhaps we don’t have to give this up after all. If the chance to sin is close by, the fact that we have temptation so near at hand makes us feel like the rich man who wanted to have all his riches and follow Jesus too. It is very hard to give up something tempting and desirable when it’s so available.

It’s one thing to say we will gladly choose to follow God instead of chasing after riches we don’t currently have. The risks and rewards seem easier to compare that way: we might never get riches for all of our eager pursuit, but Jesus promises us abundant life and eternal joy with certainty. But the choice is far harder for the person who just won the lottery and who now hears Jesus telling him: “Throw it away and come follow me.” Winning the lottery feels like a once in a lifetime victory – a great and unexpected blessing that might never come your way again. To give that up is quite a risk. How many people fell into adultery for the same reason? It was one thing to work on their marriage and be thankful for their spouses when there was no immediate rival at hand. But when someone powerfully attractive suddenly shows a special interest and implies they are available, the same feeling of good fortune takes over in the mind. Who knows when a chance like this might come around again? Too many of us are unwilling to pass up an unexpected chance for pleasure.

The truth is that God’s commands and the moral character of God that they are based on are not going to change. We don’t have choices about how to approach God. Only Jesus has the words of eternal life. We have no other avenue to take, no other lifestyle or set of values we can make the journey with. Since God is not about to change what He has rebuked as sin, there is no reason not to make a clean break with it now. Every moment that you put it off is like giving another inch to the enemy of your souls. Delaying to make the decision makes it harder to make the decision.
Delaying to make the decision makes it harder to make the decision. 
One of Satan’s favorite sneak attacks is convincing you that you don’t have to decide now. He is an expert at convincing you that tomorrow, or next week, or next year will be good enough to make the final decision. And all the while you don’t realize how much deeper the temptation is taking root, and how much less serious you are getting about believing it is really a danger or even really wrong. Think how many people lose their souls because they keep buying the idea that they can wait a little longer to make up their minds about who the Christ is – and suddenly the time’s up. The same is true for particular temptations. Putting off that decision to fully and finally commit to shutting greed out, thrusting aside all fantasies of easy money, seemed like it wasn’t doing any harm, until suddenly the perfect opportunity to cheat your employer came along. And you hadn’t ruled it out yet – so you let it take hold. Quite a number of people in prison could tell us how foolishly they toyed with the idea of embezzling from their clients or their employers for a long time before they finally jumped and did it. All they would have needed to do was decide it was unthinkable and organize their mind and desires to focus on other things. But they waited.

Don’t wait.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence from the State Day - What Christians Should Know About Their Religious Freedom

Among the responses I have seen in Christian journals and websites in the past week, one of the most encouraging has been the open admission and acceptance that Christians can no longer pretend the United States of America is our home. This actually has very little to do with a Supreme Court decision; we should have remembered this all along. But amidst the cries of despair and the cries of outrage, and the debates over how to fight back or whether to accept and move on, Christians are being reminded that the health of the Church is not synonymous with the health of the State. As Thomas Kidd wrote: "Perhaps the best thing that can come out of the gay marriage decision is for the church to make a final break between our faith and our nation."

The United State has been a good host country for Christians in many ways. We have been given a great deal of freedom that Christians in other countries have not received. In many ways, the United States has set an example for the rest of the world of what true religious freedom should look like. In fact, the United States was arguably the first nation on earth to practice genuine religious freedom, envisioned primarily by James Madison, George Mason, and Thomas Jefferson (discussed halfway through this interview with historian and professor Daniel Dreisbach). Before the founding of the United States, other countries, at the best of times, had only exhibited a kind of "religious tolerance" that permitted those who were not of the official state religion to practice their beliefs without being forced to convert.

But the United States set a standard in two important ways: 1) in insisting that there would be no official state religion or church, requiring no one to be part of any particular religion to be eligible for government office; and 2) even more importantly, putting forward and practicing the conviction that every human has an inalienable and basic right to freely practice his religious beliefs - a right that is so central to human existence and identity that the state may not interfere with it. In other words, we established the conviction that a person's worship and obedience to God was so important and natural that the state had no authority to even govern or regulate it. The conscience and private convictions of the individual were above the authority of the state. This represented a sphere of human thought and conscience that the state had no legitimate right to invade. The claim of God upon the conscience of an individual overrules the right of the state to claim authority over the individual.

This idea of religious liberty, as an aspect of human existence immune from government interference by natural right, is described here by law professor Michael Paulsen:

So understood, it is not a right that human authorities confer on those whom they rule – a dispensation. That would be, subtly and ironically, inconsistent with the very liberty the State purports to confer. It would be an assertion, at some level, of the priority and supremacy of the State and not God: the State, in its beneficence, grants the exercise of religion – the strivings of individuals and groups to discern and fulfill their duties to God, in good faith, as they understand them – a certain amount of leeway. But the nature and extent of such freedom is, on such a view, ultimately for the State to judge.

The state-conferred-dispensation view, which I think is the dominant view today, is not really religious liberty, in the sense of freedom of religious exercise from ultimate State control. It is a cipher, or shadow, or parody of religious liberty. At bottom, what justifies religious liberty – the only thing that makes it at all sensible as a liberty distinct from other liberties – is some shared sense that true religious obligation is more important than civil obligation and that, consequently, civil society must recognize this truth. Religious liberty is the legal duty of civil society to defer to the plausibly true free exercise of genuine religious faith.

That is the only conception that can fully justify the idea of constitutional protection of “free exercise” of religion – protection of freedom of religious conduct in opposition to the State's typical commands. The same premises support a related aspect of religious freedom (embodied in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment): Because God's commands, rightly perceived, trump the State's commands, it makes no sense to say that the State can determine what God's commands are and whether an individual or group has rightly perceived them. The State may not in this respect, or any other, set itself up as the arbiter of religious truth and enforce its determinations as law. The State is presumptively incompetent authoritatively to determine what God does or does not command. At least, that must be the operating premise if the right of religious freedom is not to be a chimera.

Christians, this is the concept of religious freedom that we believe in and have been fighting to protect. As things unfold in the months and years to come, let us remember that this is where we want to be in a democratic nation. Paulsen notes that this pure idea of religious freedom - of the superiority of God's claims upon the conscience to any claims made by the state - is not the dominant view today. Yet it is still a strong view that has powerful legal support. Only three years ago, every justice of the Supreme Court - the same justices now sitting - voted unanimously to uphold this view that the state has no authority or competence to judge the sincerity and validity of religious belief. (PDF here)

So there is no reason whatsoever to give up on the ideal of religious freedom in the United States. The voices that have been raised lately, even in major news publications, to call for increased restriction of Christian belief and practice are a bit hysterical and unrealistic. They do not represent the settled convictions of many justices and judges, let alone the citizens of the nation. We have every reason to stand firm in insisting on true religious freedom. But as people push back against us and rattle their sabers, let's not let that heritage and privilege become our security and resting place. We don't need religious freedom to be secure in Christ. No change to the laws of this country can take away our home or our identity.

The most important thing we can do today as a Church is to pay attention to fixing our identity in our citizenship in the Church. The United States will never be, even at its best and most noble, more than a convenient host country where the Lord has placed us to serve as ambassadors. We should strive to be the best kind of citizens and to seek the good of this country that hosts us, but we don't seek its identity. We remember that we "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city." Therefore, we acknowledge and embrace joyfully that we will always be "strangers and exiles on the earth." (Hebrews 11:13-16). Don't forget where home is.

Rod Dreher sums this up well, acknowledging the resistance and hostility we are going to have to fight through: "Conditions are about to get much worse for us. We must reflect soberly on this fact, and act wisely, but decisively. Just over a decade ago, Robert Louis Wilken, writing in First Things, said that the greatest danger facing the Church is forgetfulness. That is, in our post-Christian culture, we are rapidly losing memory of what it means to be a faithful Christian. 'Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin,' he wrote. 'At this moment in the Church's history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life.'"

Take courage, dear friends, and first and foremost, seek the good and the strengthening of our true kingdom.