Saturday, May 30, 2009

God's Boundless Grace

The issue of Calvinism versus Arminianism has come up on various blogs recently, so I've been thinking a lot about the subject. I've always thought of myself as an Arminian, and according to the five points of Calvinism (TULIP), I certainly am. (Arminianism is essentially moderate Calvinism.) But I've never been drawn to the writings of Jacobus Arminius or John Wesley, whose teachings represent what is known as Arminianism. In fact, my all-time favorite author is Andrew Murray, who was reformed (or Calvinist). He has probably influenced my thinking the most. And John Piper, another Calvinist, is one of my favorite living authors.

But I still can't accept TULIP, and I'm beginning to understand why: it confines God's grace to a man-made system that uses terminology not found in the Bible. It uses language like "limited" atonement and "irresistible" grace, making God seem like a small deity who rations grace to a few (because he didn't have to save anyone). He will punish people for being "morally culpable," even though, according to TULIP, they had no choice. TULIP seems like a straitjacket to me, because it leaves no room for human freedom and it restricts grace. And even if it is based on biblical truth, it strips God's word of its paradoxes, so at best it is a half-truth.

Andrew Murray, on the other hand, talks about grace that is vast as an ocean and a God who empowers us to receive everything he wants to give. Nothing except our own resistance can keep him away, because he won't break down the door. But even our resistance needs not be a barrier--God will help us surrender if we ask him.

So I'm empowered because I have a choice, but my will--weak and corrupt as it is--won't keep me down. God will meet me where I am, no matter how low. He will nurture me so that I grow stronger and freer by surrendering my life him. My bondage gives way to perfect freedom when his grace fills every part of my life.

The invitation goes out to all: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me." (Revelation 3:20)

Monday, May 18, 2009

What is Saving Faith?

If The Pilgrim's Progress had been written today, the protagonist, Christian, would simply have recited the Sinner's Prayer and built a nice home in the City of Destruction. End of story.

"Listen to today's typical gospel presentation," says Bible scholar John MacArthur. "You will hear sinners entreated with such phrases as 'accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior'; 'ask Jesus into your heart'; 'invite Christ into your life'; or 'make a decision for Christ.' You may be so accustomed to hearing those phrases that it will surprise you to learn that none of them are based on biblical terminology. They are the products of a diluted gospel. It is not the gospel according to Jesus."

What is wrong with the gospel often preached today? There's rarely any mention of repentance. I'm not trying to be nit-picky here, but repentance is fundamental to saving faith. Without it we may have intellectual faith in the gospel and even be really nice people (as far as that goes), but we won't be saved. 

John the Baptist spent his entire ministry exhorting people to REPENT. I realize that word sounds very old-fashioned (and you may be picturing me wild-eyed on a street corner right now), but it was the way John prepared people for Jesus. Repentance is absolutely fundamental. Without it, saving faith is impossible. 

Why is that? Because repentance is recognizing, at the deepest level, our utter spiritual bankruptcy. We need to recognize this because it's true. And when we do, the gospel becomes good news and we are prepared to receive it in faith. Before that, it means nothing. 

To use an example: Martin Luther was a conscientious Catholic monk who took holiness very seriously. So every time he sinned, he'd go see one of the priests to confess. Luther spent most of his day in confession. "Oops! I had a sinful thought!" Off to confession. "Oh, no! Another one." One more trip. "I haven't checked off everything on my to-do list--a sin of omission! Aaargh!!" I don't think anyone was more relieved when Luther saw the light than the priests who had to listen to him.

As history tells us, Luther did see the light, in the book of Romans, where he learned that we are justified by faith in Christ, not by any good deeds on our part. Romans 8:1-2 says: "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death." When we come to Jesus in true repentance, he fills us with his Holy Spirit and begins the process of sanctification, or transformation into his image. We are saved as soon as this re-birth takes place (Luke 23:33), but we still have to be led by the Holy Spirit throughout our lives. "All who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." (Romans 8:14)

So what about good deeds? They are the fruit or evidence of salvation. If we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) we will behave like him. The more time we spend with him, abiding in his presence, the more we'll think and act like him. That is faith. 

Can we lose this salvation? This is a hotly disputed question, with most modern theologians saying "no." They say that if someone walks away from the faith, they were never saved to begin with. What then, do we make of 1 Cor. 9:27, where Paul says: "I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified."? Is Paul saying that he is not sure that his conversion was real? Of course he isn't. He's talking about making sure that he finishes the race. What matters is whether we are still walking with God in faith when we draw our last breath. (Ezekiel 18:21-29)

But in the meantime, I like Brother Lawrence's thoughts on the issue: "He had been long troubled in mind from a certain belief that he should be damned . . . but that at last he had seen that this trouble arose from want of faith, and that since he had passed his life in perfect liberty and continual joy." Here was another monk who saw his own moral failure, but learned to trust that God would save him. Jesus is, after all, the Good Shepherd, who will do what he can to bring us back when we stray.

Let's trust in him without complacency. Because there is no room for complacency in the life of someone who has entered the race to receive that imperishable wreath. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Asking the Right Questions

Ever notice that the issues that divide Christians often have very little to do with our walk of faith? Usually they pertain to how God does his job. For example, we all agree that God created the world. Will my faith be deeper and stronger if I believe that it took him a literal six days than if I believe it took millions of years? Or is it good enough that I know who created it, that he made me in his image, and how evil entered the world? Is it possible that the story of creation tells us everything we need to know and no more?

Calvinists and Arminians have always squabbled and probably always will. But if Future Grace by John Piper represents Calvinism, there's very little practical difference between the two camps, because I agree with almost all of it, and I'm an Arminian. The only real differences between Calvinism and classical Arminianism are different interpretations of predestination and disagreement about whether Christians can lose their salvation or if they were never really saved if they fall away. But if a Christian is ultimately lost, what difference does it make if he or she was ever saved? It is a theoretical question. And so is the issue of predestination. Again it has to do with how God does his job. Our job is to go out into the world and make disciples of every nation. (Matthew 28:19)

The Problem of Evil is a biggie--we can talk about that one all day for the rest of our lives and still not reach a definitive conclusion. But if the Bible doesn't fully explain it, that must mean we don't need to understand it. And we don't. If you look at the whole Bible in context, you'll see that it's all about how we are to overcome evil with good. When God became Man, he spent his entire ministry overcoming evil, culminating in the cross, where he defeated it decisively. We are to follow in his footsteps, empowered by his Spirit.

Matthew 25 gives us a hint of what Judgment Day will look like, and as far as I can make out, there will be no theology exam. It shows us that Paul was right when he said that the only thing that counts is faith working through love, because we will be judged by our sins of omission. What did we do for the least of these? If I believe all the right things about God, but I don't have love, it will profit me nothing on that day. So why do we waste time bickering about things that God in his sovereignty has chosen not to reveal?

The Bible is an amazing book. People say that it's inconsistent, but it is actually remarkably consistent about everything we need to know. All the necessary pieces fit together perfectly. And God wants us to search out those profound truths that light our path. He delights to reveal himself to us if our goal is to walk more closely with him. If I focus on what I need to know, it will keep my mind fully engaged, because truth of every kind flourishes along that path. But there are some questions that are unsearchable, and for that reason Christians will always disagree. Why not try to preserve the unity where possible by deciding not to get too hung up on theoretical questions? Let's pick the battles that really matter.

Will we fight to the death for a literal translation of Genesis 1 and ignore the words of our Lord about forgiveness of others in Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:35, Mark 11:26? If we do not forgive, God will not forgive us. And without God's forgiveness, where are we? The Bible makes it very clear that forgiveness from the heart is not optional for a believer.

By no means am I saying that we should dismiss what is not practical. Nor am I challenging the inerrancy of the Scriptures. But are we guilty of straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel? (Matthew 23:24) Some things are just beyond human understanding, but that doesn't stop simple believers from walking closely with God in faith. In fact, I can see them way up ahead of me on the path when I'm off in the woods splitting theological hairs.

I am convinced that the Bible is never accidentally opaque or inconsistent. John 21:18-23 illustrates that God has very definite ideas about what we need to know and what we don't. After Jesus told Peter how he would die to glorify God, Peter asked, "Lord, and what about [John]?" Jesus replied, "If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!"

And the Bible tells us everything we need to know to obey that command.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What is Your Life?

James puts it in perspective for us: "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." (James 4:14) My life in this world has a beginning and an end. I am like a cut flower that will bloom for a short while and then wither and die.

But Christ came to plant me by streams of living water. This life is but a prelude to Life.

In light of that truth, shouldn't I let him use me as he sees fit? Shouldn't I lay down my perishable life, so I can pick up his eternal life? Each day gives me an opportunity to lay down my life for him. Let's say the Master has a collection of knives to use for his own good purposes. If he wants to use me to perform necessary surgery, should I say: "No! I want you to use me to butter the toast, or better yet, spread the frosting on the cake"? When he wants to spread frosting on the cake, he will choose the right knife, and maybe it will be me. But maybe not.

If God wants me to encourage, I have to encourage. If he wants me to serve, I have to serve. And if he wants my words to convict, I have to speak them. If my life belongs to him, I am a tool in his collection, ready for whatever use he has for me.

Not only is my life a mist--this world is. The pressure I feel to conform is momentary. His truth is eternal.

"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." -- Jim Elliot

Thursday, May 7, 2009

An Eternal Vantage Point

Picture yourself for a moment, having passed from time into eternity, looking back on your life from that vantage point. What were the high points? The lows? Most of us will probably be surprised.

Why? Because the values of this world, including the modern Christian subculture, are dramatically different from those that govern in God's kingdom. Highly successful people will see their lives weighed on God's scale and declared worthless--nothing more than a fading dream of accolades from people whose opinions no longer matter. Others will rise out of obscurity and receive the only words that matter in that day: "Well done, good and faithful servant." 

How can we know the difference between God's values and those of the world, especially if the world's values infiltrate churches and Christian organizations? 1 John 2:15-17 tells us: "Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever."

In this world, three things motivate us: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. The word "lust," here broadly means a strong desire for anything. Without the miracle of regeneration, we spend every moment of every day, from the cradle to the grave, pursuing some combination of those "lusts." For example, a typical life without the love of the Father would consist of working hard for recognition, pleasure, and material comfort for ourselves and those close to us. Nothing necessarily wrong with that--except that those things have an expiration date, and the Bible tells us we will live forever.

When we think of the lust of the flesh, of course we think of sex first. It's everywhere in our society. No wonder the subject of pornography comes up so often in sermons. But even if we don't belong to the (ahem) gender that struggles most with that temptation, we can worship the flesh through food and other indulgences as well. (Starbucks, anyone?) If our primary goal in life is to feel good, we are gratifying the lust of the flesh, whether or not our means are socially acceptable.

Gratification of the lust of the eyes is the American way. I have to confess that I lusted after a red patent leather handbag this morning, but I resisted. Cars, homes, computers, clothes--we can never have enough. If there's an upgrade, we need it. God wants us rich, right?

The boastful pride of life is what keeps us working sixty-hour weeks to validate ourselves. It can creep so subtly into even the work we do for God that we have no idea it's happening. Are we doing something to further God's kingdom or because we want people to respect us? This is a very important question, because Matthew 6:1 tells us that if we practice our righteousness before other people to be noticed by them, we have no reward from God. 1 Corinthians 13 gets even more extreme and says that if we give everything we own to feed the poor and deliver our bodies to be burned, but we do it with the wrong motives, it profits us nothing. Wow!

That may seem harsh to us, because we're used to thinking that good deeds deserve rewards. And they do--the Bible doesn't deny that. It simply says that the eternal reward depends on whether the love of God--or the Holy Spirit within us--motivated the deed. If we do something to please others, we may get recognition from them. And if we do the will of God, especially if other people criticize us for it, we earn treasure in heaven. 

So a deed, no matter how small, that originates from the love of God in our hearts will have more eternal value than a major sacrifice aimed at self-promotion. Why? Because the world is passing away, and also its lusts. Only the eternal (the work God does through us) remains. Many things that seem important now are only temporary. 

We will most likely be surprised in that day, when the inflated balloon of this world has popped and reality lays bare. But we shouldn't be. The Bible tells us everything we need to know about the kingdom of God and its values. The problem is that we sentimentalize the words of our Lord. Yes, Jesus was eloquent, but most of the time he was simply stating facts about his kingdom. It's easy to respond by saying, "Ooh, that's beautiful. I like that," and go on living exactly the way we did before. But that is a major mistake. None of us want to spend eternity agonizing over what could have been.

What does your life look like stripped of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life? That is the measure of its eternal significance.