Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Peace of God

We all know the peace of lying in a hammock or walking along the beach. But what is the peace of God? Is it a feeling? Yes, but only in the sense that we feel good physically when we are healthy. The peace of God is spiritual health.

In our natural, broken state, we're divided against ourselves much of the time. We're stressed because we take on to much. We take on too much because our egos demand it. We allow tension to build between ourselves and others because we can't see their pain past our own. We let bitterness grow in our souls like cancer. We destroy our bodies in a desperate quest for pleasure. We're consumed with anxiety over the future, because we don't trust in God.

But the gift of God, through Christ, is freedom from all that. He wants to clear out all the toxic emotions and integrate us so that we are not fighting a civil war within our hearts. When our minds, hearts, and hands are under his sovereign control, we know true peace. And that peace also gives life to the body. (Proverbs 14:30)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why Did Martin Luther Tell Us to Sin Boldly?

Go to fullsize imageMartin Luther was not the type of person who'd say, "On the one hand, this . . . on the other hand, that. Let me just clarify what I said so nobody will take offense." If he had been, we might not have had a Reformation.

He often used hyperbole that made his opponents demonize him and sent his proponents scrambling to demonstrate from his other writings what he really meant. But his words never got lost in the white noise.

This is what he said: "God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world."

What on earth could he have meant by that? Is he saying, like many Christians believe today, that the Cross covers continued, willful sin that we refuse to surrender? No, he is not. How do I know this? By interpreting those words in the context of his whole theology. He said elsewhere: "If you do not give forth such proofs of faith [good works], it is certain that your faith is not right. Not that good works are commanded us by this Word; for where faith in the heart is right, there is no need of much commanding good works to be done; they follow of themselves. But the works of love are only an evidence of the existence of faith." (Italics added.) Although Luther stressed that we are saved by faith alone, faith by its very nature produces good works. The idea that a person can be saved while continuing on exactly like before is a dangerous misunderstanding of both the Apostle Paul and Luther.

So what, then, did he mean? He is talking about the power of the Cross to forgive and heal all sin. Real sin, not just the imaginary kind where deep down we feel that we were justified.

Then there are times when I decide to start praying more and becoming less lukewarm, and it never fails--I always end up falling flat on my face shortly afterwards. It must be because Satan suddenly considers me worthy of his attention and brings to the surface something that had been in my heart all along. When I'm still down, he says: "Look at you. What a disgrace! And you call yourself a Christian!"

It is at that moment that Luther's words become relevant. There are many ways I can react. I can justify myself and add that one to my collection of "imaginary" sins (although at this point I'm starting to think that maybe all my sins are real), I can try harder next time, I can despair, or I can hide from God like Adam and Eve did after the Fall. In other words, I can let Satan put me on the defensive.  

Or I can act like the Cross actually means something. Like it is enough for sinners like myself. I can say to Satan: "Yes, I AM a sinner! Thank you for the reminder, because sometimes I fool myself. But the Cross is sufficient for ALL sins of ALL people, both to remove the guilt and the stain." Or, in the words of Luther, I can say: "Indeed, by calling me a sinner you are supplying me with weapons against yourself so that I can slay and destroy you with your own sword; for Christ died for sinners." God's grace is sufficient for me, and his grace gives me not just forgiveness but victory over sin as well.

In Luke 7, Jesus demonstrates to a Pharisee how he welcomes even the worst of repentant sinners, and the power of his forgiveness. A woman had brought an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, and she kept anointing his feet with the perfume, weeping, and wiping his feet with her hair. The Pharisee, who hosted the party, was indignant that Jesus didn't seem to know what type of woman she was--a sinner. But Jesus explained, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfume. For that reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little loves little."

She was a bold sinner, but her trust in (and love for) Christ was stronger than her sin, so she experienced his victory over sin, death, and the world. The power of the Cross was enough for her, and it is enough for us.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

When We Question Our Salvation

About ten years after my conversion, I went through a period when I laid awake at night thinking that if the Bible really meant what it said, I was going to hell for sure. If you've read "Venite Ad Me, Omnes" or "The Needle's Eye," you know that that period of our lives was boot camp on steroids. When God had my undivided attention, I saw that many parts of the Bible just didn't fit into the neatly packaged, processed salvation message that is palatable to modern consumers. For the first time, I had a glimpse of what it would be like to face a holy God.

We live in a culture where "Christianity Lite" is the majority religion, where all we have to do is recite a prayer and we will be irrevocably saved, even if nothing really changes in our lives. But this is not the true gospel. God's word has to be consistent about everything pertaining to our walk of faith in obedience (and it is). And yet much of what it teaches doesn't fit into the modern conceptual framework. Every book in the New Testament says that good works are evidence of faith, and Matthew 25 makes it very clear that we will judged by our works. Without good works, we don't have saving faith. (James 2:14-26)

If we read the Bible regularly we have probably already noticed that. We will come across some very hard passages. And it can lead honest Christians to question their salvation in the lonely darkness when Christian culture recedes and they are alone with God. But I am convinced that when we wrestle with those doubts, God is at work, preparing to show us the nature of saving faith and give us a deep certainty that he who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

We have to be careful not to slap a band-aid on those doubts, because they play an important role in leading us to repentance. That means not listening to Christians who say that there can be faith without fruit. God talks about such people when he says, "They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, 'Peace, peace,' but there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14) Without victory over sin, the patient is still terminal. But if our sins trouble us and make us want to despair, we are exactly where we need to be in order to receive the cure: saving faith.

If we feel like we are hopeless sinners, we are in excellent company. The thief on the cross next to Jesus was on death row, and he never got a chance to do good works. He knew he deserved to die. But Jesus said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43)

Why was he saved? Because he was justified by faith, apart from any good deeds. Romans 5:1-2 says: "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand." When we truly repent, meaning that we recognize our utter helplessness and unworthiness (Luke 18:14), we obtain our introduction by faith into a state of grace. That means we have saving faith. And that faith gives us victory over sin and enables us to trust God for our final salvation. If that thief had survived, there would have been good works.

I want to try to make that seem a little more real and practical, because we've all heard those words again and again. And yet they're just words until we actually experience it. In The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence described how he came to trust God for his salvation. He spent years convinced that he would go to hell, and then suddenly he realized that it was because he lacked faith that God would save him, and he spent the rest of his life in joy and liberty.

But he never became complacent about his salvation, he just trusted God to do his will through him. "When an occasion of practicing some virtue was offered, he addressed himself to God saying, 'Lord, I cannot do this unless Thou enable me.' Then he received strength more than sufficient. When he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault saying to God, 'I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself. It is You who must hinder my failing and mend what is amiss.' Then, after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it."

Brother Lawrence recognized that God alone can save us, from the moment we are born of the Spirit to the day we die. All we have to do is surrender and trust. We have to let him empower us to do his will. Let's say the problem is that we want to keep sinning. Then we have to ask him to help us stop wanting it. Only he can help us want the right things. The more we depend on God, the more he can work in and through us for his glory.

And even then, spiritual growth takes time, so we shouldn't be discouraged when we fail. God is in charge, and he will work in our hearts and through our circumstances to bring us to our final destination. He is our Good Shepherd and we can fully trust in him.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Death of a Star

Nature so often hints at the unseen mysteries of eternity. I was thinking the other day about how much a star is like a spirit. Angels are often compared to stars. Jesus is the "bright morning star."

When fire burns within a star, it radiates power, light, and beauty. But when a large star collapses into itself, it becomes an invisible black hole that is just a tiny point in space but has infinite density and pulls in everything around it, including light. Most of us have known people who are like that: demanding, manipulative, self-pitying, egotistical--they devour those around them without ever feeling satisfied. Their egos make them incapable of really loving another person. All their relationships are dysfunctional in some way.

That is the essence of hell. The angel Lucifer was believed to have been the greatest and most beautiful of the heavenly host. But when he led a rebellion against God, he and the angels who followed him became like black holes: small, powerful, and dangerous--devouring other souls. They no longer had the fire of God glowing within them.

Our spirits will live forever, much in the same way that a burned out star doesn't just cease to exist. The question is whether we want the fire of God burning within us throughout eternity. Do we want the bright morning star to arise in our hearts? (2 Peter 1:19) Our eternal glory can only come from him, or not at all.

"Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever." (Daniel 12:3)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gandhi and Christianity: Did the Apostle Paul Contradict Jesus?

Go to fullsize imageAs I mentioned before, Mohandas Gandhi was deeply drawn to Jesus and his teachings. When he died in 1948, he had about a dozen books in his possession, including the Gospel of John and The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ. But he never accepted Jesus as more than a great teacher, and he held that Paul's teachings were grafted onto those of Jesus.

I don't know exactly why he reached the conclusion that Paul contradicted Jesus, but I can make an educated guess. Some people claim that Jesus taught salvation by works while Paul taught salvation by faith. Gandhi never seemed to accept the idea that salvation could come by faith, probably in part because his Christian friends didn't seem to really understand it themselves. I discussed that in my previous post. If Gandhi saw Jesus as a great moral teacher who said little about faith, that might explain why he was drawn to him and felt like Paul taught something completely different.

But Jesus and Paul taught exactly the same gospel in different ways. Jesus was like a novelist and Paul a theologian. A novelist is supposed to show, not tell, and that is exactly what Jesus often did. He told stories to illustrate what the kingdom of God is like, using a lot of symbolism, and he demonstrated what faith looks like in action. His way of teaching was like drawing our attention to the beauty of a flower.

Paul's way, on the other hand, was like dissecting the flower and analyzing each part scientifically. He explained the nature of faith in a very nuanced and complex way. But his message was always ultimately about "faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6). Paul recognized that the gospel is as simple as it is profound.

Jesus and Paul both taught justification by faith, which means that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). This is a gift, quite apart from any goodness in us. But Paul discussed the subject at great length from a theological standpoint, while Jesus simply illustrated what type of person will be justified. He told a parable to some people who "trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt" (Luke 18:9). A Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God that he wasn't corrupt like other people, including the tax collector. But the tax collector couldn't even lift his eyes to heaven. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Jesus declared that the tax collector went away justified, "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14). So here we have a man who was still very much a sinner, but he was set right in God's eyes.

Likewise, both of them taught that salvation must be through faith alone, but that true faith leads to good works. Paul says that we are chosen for "salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth" (2 Thessalonians 2:13). In other words, faith means that the Holy Spirit lives within us and transforms us from the inside out. Jesus illustrates this in John 15 by saying that he is the vine and we are the branches. If we abide in him, we will bear much fruit, but apart from him we can do nothing. His Spirit is like the sap that flows through to the branches, and the fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

It is true that Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how we are to live and setting the standard. And Gandhi appreciated that. But the standard is impossibly high because of our human limitations. Gandhi saw that, too. At the end of his life, he wrote: "It is an unbroken torture to me that I am still so far from him whom I know governs every breath of my life and whose offspring I am. I know it is because of the evil passions within me that keep me so far from him; yet I can't get away from them."

Gandhi saw very clearly that the goal is always love, but he never recognized that faith in Christ is the only means by which we can lay hold of it. The gift of salvation is to let the love of Christ flow through us, putting to death the "evil passions" that even a lifetime devoted to virtue can't control.

Jesus set the standard so high because he enables us to meet it by changing our hearts. He was far more than just a good teacher--he came that we "may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gandhi and Christianity

Mahatma GandhiMahatma Gandhi seemed to have been a man with a rare moral compass. He humbly sought the truth and he was self-aware enough to know that he needed what Jesus came to give. More self-aware, frankly, than many Christians. He was in a perfect position to understand the power of the cross, but it appears that he never fully did.

Gandhi was deeply drawn to Christ, referring to him as "a beautiful example of the perfect Man." He befriended a number of Christians and consented to their efforts to convert him, even though he noted that his friend Mr. Coates had "no regard for my religion." Mr. Coates introduced Gandhi to other Christians, including one man who said: "Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think of what a life of restlessness is yours [because Gandhi was always atoning for his own sins], and what a promise of peace we have."

Gandhi replied by saying: "If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless."

"I assure you, your attempt is fruitless," the man replied.

"And the brother proved as his word," Gandhi continues in his narration. "He knowingly committed transgressions, and showed me that he was undisturbed by the thought of them."

That man sounds like a lot of Christians today, doesn't he? We want Jesus to take away our guilt without removing the stain. We are content to know that we'll go to Heaven, even if our lives stay exactly the same. But if I still cherish sin this side of the cross, who's to say that Heaven would be desirable to me--a place where, according to C.S. Lewis, "we shall not be able to retain the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell." The truth is, if I don't love God and hate my sin, I will probably not be motivated by Heaven anyway.

But I think to a degree we all want more than "pie in the sky by and by when I die." I want my soul to be right within me, so that sin is not my default setting. I don't want to be arrogant, insecure, lazy, stressed, irritable, weak, clueless, prejudiced, anxious, hateful, jealous, naive, vengeful or any of those things that make life miserable and complicated. I want the space beneath my skull bones to be a pleasant place because it is the prism through which I see the world. My thoughts and feelings matter a whole lot more than circumstances. If I'm bitter or angry, what difference does it make what my life looks like to others?

When Gandhi told Mr. Coates about his encounter, he was horrified. But Gandhi reassured him that he knew that not all Christians hold to such a theory of atonement. "Mr. Coates himself walked in the fear of God," Gandhi wrote. "His heart was pure, and he believed in the possibility of self-purification."

The possibility of self-purification? How is that good news? Gandhi had been attempting self-purification his entire life as a Hindu. But clearly his best efforts were not good enough, otherwise he wouldn't have expressed such a longing to be redeemed from his sins. Not surprisingly, Gandhi decided that Christianity was not much different from his own religion.

But properly understood, Christianity is fundamentally different from any other religion, because Christ came to reconcile us to God and restore our souls. When Jesus died on that cross, he defeated evil once and for all. And through faith in him, we have victory over our sins. He justifies us (sets us right with God) and sanctifies us (heals our brokenness). The vilest criminal and Mahatma Gandhi have equal access into God's presence to receive a new heart and a new spirit. (Ezekiel 36:26)

That seems to be exactly what Gandhi wanted--to say with the psalmist, "I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free." (Psalm 119:32) He wanted the chords of sin and death to be broken.

"Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)