Category Archives: Holiness

When a Fast is not a Fast

I have, for some time, been slowly making my way through Isaiah in my morning devotional reading. This morning I read Isaiah 58. In the first verse, God told the prophet to cry aloud with a “voice like a trumpet” declaring the transgressions of the people. In the second verse we see an interesting twist. The ESV even has the passage beginning with “Yet.” This shows that what is to follow is not what we would expect after the first verse. The passage goes on to say that the people seek God daily, delight to know his ways and delight to draw near to him. But this seems contradictory. How can they be condemned for their transgressions (in verse 1) and in the next breath (in verse 2) be described in a way which most would assume to be righteous. Actually, the passage implies they were not acting righteously. When it says, “as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God” (ESV) the implication is that they are unrighteousness and acting in a way contrary to God’s judgment even while observing the outward elements of religion.

We discover the problem deeper in the chapter. God speaks of their fasts, but then condemns them for oppressing the workers and the poor. He goes on to tell them in verses six and seven that the fast preferred by God is to release the oppressed, to share one’s bread with the hungry and to shelter the homeless. This is an important consideration. One way sees religious practices as a simple equation between the supplicant and God. The other includes our treatment of one another as definitive of obedient observance.

Part of the way to understand this is to keep in mind the Old Covenant definition of righteousness. Righteousness meant the observance of one’s duty to others. One was righteous if one treated others in keeping with the demands of duty. But one was not righteous for observing only particular duties and ignoring others. One was righteous if it could be said they observed all duties owed to any other being. A great example is the chapter before us. If I see my duties to God as somehow separate from my duties to my fellow man, I can delude myself into thinking, “As long as I do my duty to God, it doesn’t matter how I treat others.” In an Old Covenant economy this could mean that while treating others poorly, I may offer sacrifices and fast regularly in the wrong belief that God would be satisfied with the performance of my duties to him. However, such a person was not righteous before God. Only one who did his duty to everyone was truly defined as righteous—someone who had left no duty unperformed.

Those to whom God speaks in Isaiah 58 were not righteous because they owed duties to their workers and to the poor, which they ignored while seeking God’s favor through religious observance. There are two things which help us to see why this was a problem.

First, all men[1] are made in God’s image. We all reflect his image and the way we treat other people reflects on our treatment of God. If I despise my fellow man, how can I claim to love God in whose image my fellow man was made (James 3:9-10)? Our treatment of our fellow man serves as a litmus test of our claim to love God (1 John 3:10).

Second, consider for a moment a wealthy man deciding, “Today, in honor of God, I will fast and eat nothing.” What happens to the food? It is still consumed by the same man, just on another day.[2] It is only the consumption that is delayed. However, if I take the food I would have eaten and give it to another, it is gone, never to return. It has actually cost me something. The former cost me nothing. The former cheapens the sacrifice. This form of fasting only delays the consumption, so is it truly a fast and sacrifice? God says it is not (Psalm 51:16-17; 1 John 3:17).

God condemned his people for observing the details of fasts and sacrifices without recognizing the most important element of these—concern for others. Our religious observances or faith practices are not separate from our treatment of our fellow man. They go hand in hand. You honor God by treating those created in his image with dignity.

[1] By this I mean all humanity—mankind.

[2] Yes, I understand that some foods may not be preserved and their lack of consumption could make them garbage. But this makes it even worse! Imagine the man throwing away moldy bread today, which he chose not to eat yesterday during a fast, rather than giving it to some poor person who could have consumed it while it was still good.


Moral Confidence

Galatians 2:20 ESV, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”


In the world of Christian ethics there is a tendency to imagine the lines between right and wrong being drawn much more precisely than is the actual case. As Christians, we view the scriptures as our “rule for faith and practice.” We seek within the pages of holy writ guidance for right and wrong, so that we can live a life pleasing to God, the author of scripture. This search for moral direction within scripture is admirable. It is also wise. However, we have to agree that not every choice in life is spelled out within scripture. When facing such choices we have to look in a different direction. Fortunately, God has given us tools to use to find the right course of action.

Before getting into the details about making such decisions, let me remind you of another problem. Many people wrongly assume that every possible choice can be decided by looking for a command in scripture. “I am considering action A. If I look hard enough there should be a scripture telling me to do A or to not do A. Then I simply obey the words of scripture, and morality is easy.” However, Christian morality, like all moral reasoning, is far more complex than that. This error comes from two false assumptions:

  1. All actions can be classified as morally forbidden or morally binding.
  2. Scripture provides exhaustive moral guidance—covering all possible moral questions.

The second is easy to address. Scripture’s moral instructions were never meant to be exhaustive. A human life is made up of innumerable choices, from the moment one is capable of moral choice to the moment one is no longer capable to make such choices, one must decide moment by moment what action to take. Some choices will require little thought—for example, we make some choices simply because of our culture or from long practice, as a sort of ethical muscle memory. However, even a moral choice without thought is still a moral choice, just a habitual one.

In case you think all of life’s possible choices can be found in the pages of scripture remember the one life which scripture records in far more detail than any other—that of Christ Jesus. John tells us that not all the books in the world could hold all the things that Jesus did (John 21:25). If this is true of simply recording the deeds done in a three year period of a single life, imagine how many books it would take to lay out “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” commands for every possible choice faced in every possible human life in every possible time.

This erroneous thinking is actually tied to the first false assumption above. We imagine the world as “black and white” in all moral questions. In doing this we classify everything as either right or wrong. So long as we understand right or wrong to mean “acceptable or unacceptable” this is fine. Acceptability is morally vague. If an action is acceptable, then it is something I may choose, but if I do not choose it then no harm, no foul. This is because acceptable is not obligatory—it is…um…acceptable. However, a problem arises when we try to give the impetus of moral force to every choice by classifying everything as either morally obligatory or morally forbidden. If we imagine that every possible action is either morally forbidden by God (Thou shalt not…) or morally demanded by God (Thou shalt…) then life is lived far more harshly than scripture ever intended. We can easily find ourselves in situations where one must choose between two equally immoral actions. This usually happens because we have applied scriptural morality in a way that was never intended.

When morally right and wrong are understood to mean moral obligation to act or to act not, we see the two extremes of black and white separated by a great gulf of grey. By this, don’t imagine that I mean vague or relative morality. What I mean is, along with the morally obligatory and the morally forbidden, there is also a category of morally neutral actions. These are actions that God neither demands nor forbids we perform. In these actions, we are free to choose either way without moral violation. In these cases I may go right or left without any moral results.

If I am sitting here on a morning and want to spend the day at the local amusement park for some entertainment, are there any moral imperatives to consider? Well, if it is a workday, and to go I would have to call and lie to my boss, then going to the amusement park would be immoral. Let’s imagine that I have volunteered with a local agency and promised to take some children to the amusement park, but decide that I would rather not go and break my promise by calling and pretending to be sick. In this case, not going would be immoral. But are these the only possible scenarios? Of course not. If it is my day off and I have no other obligations, the decision to go to the amusement park is morally neutral—I am neither obligated to go, nor forbidden to do so.

Many Christians put little thought to the morally neutral. Some of the more legalistic among us imagine there is no such thing as morally neutral. They often do this by misapplying James 4:17. The problem comes from reading it in the King James Version, which says, “Therefore, to him who knoweth to do good, but doeth it not, for him it is sin.” It is too often assumed this means that if I see possible action A, and I can tell that it would have some good result—perhaps it would help someone, or would improve someone’s life—then I am obliged to perform it. This would change any action with a possible good result into a moral imperative. However, this is not what the passage is saying. It is a bit more obvious in modern translations, such as the ESV which reads: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The issue in James 4:17 is showing that moral imperatives can be positive or negative. They can command us to act, just as bindingly as they tell us to refrain. It is too easy to say, “I have not done x, y or z, so I have behaved morally.” But morality can also bind us to an action so failing to do something morally binding is just as immoral as doing something forbidden. However, this does not make everything binding. It merely addresses those things that are truly binding.

Part of the problem with applying everything as morally obligatory or morally forbidden is that it destroys the concept of an action being praiseworthy or of an action going beyond one’s moral duty (supererogatory actions). Actions beyond one’s duty and therefore praiseworthy are actions where the person was morally free not to act, but chose to act anyways. They were not obliged to go either way, but they took action. Was Jesus morally bound to die on the cross? If so, then he deserved the death. He was morally free to choose to escape that death. His death is praiseworthy because he was not morally obligated to die, but chose to do so. You can see even greater danger to the “all actions are always morally obligatory or morally forbidden,” when you apply this back to this example of Jesus’ death. If this is true (one is always morally obligated either to act or not act, with no morally neutral) then since we have already determined that Jesus was not morally obligated to die, then he must have been morally obligated to live. If so, then receiving the death that we all agree he had the power to prevent would mean Jesus acted immorally by dying for us. If all choices are either black or white with no grey, meaning all actions are either morally forbidden or morally obligatory with no morally neutral, then either Jesus died because he deserved it as a sinner, or he sinned by dying. It should be obvious that such a dichotomous look at all moral considerations is indefensible. We must recognize the morally neutral in order to have any sensible morality.

One reason many want to deny the idea of moral neutrality of certain actions or choices is because it is in this area that most moral difficulty arises. If I accept that scripture does not lay out exactly how I must act in each and every choice of life, then I am forced to expend great effort in making my own choices. This effort is actually a sign of maturity. Years ago, when working as a substitute teacher in a small rural school on a Native Reservation, I was often assigned to work with the middle school because they were the most difficult. I would always tell the class, “If you act like an adult, I will treat you like an adult; act like a child, I will treat you like a child.” One day a student raised his hand and asked, “Mr. Cluck, what’s the difference?” I responded that “A child does what is right because doing otherwise brings punishment, but an adult does what is right simply because it is right.” The mature must learn how to know right from wrong and learn to act in the right way by internalizing these so that there is no more need for direction (this is the essence of the morality of the New Covenant, Heb 5:12-14 and Heb 8:11). The mature does not act out of a fear of punishment but out of a developed desire to do right.

Most effort to find a direct command in scripture to morally require either action or abstinence are inspired by a lack of confidence. We may believe the other person incapable of making a right choice, so we look for guidance for them. We may believe ourselves unable to convince them, so we look for a written command to force them. These may be what we admit to inspiring us, but there is one thing we will seldom admit though deep down it is the most likely cause of this effort. We simply do not trust the Holy Spirit to guide them. We do not trust the Holy Spirit to change them. We want to play the part of the Holy Spirit by finding a way to make our own moral pronouncements binding. When we do this to ourselves, we may simply not trust the Lord’s resolve to save us. We may fear that God is just waiting for some reason, some excuse to scratch our name out of the book of Life.

Don’t misunderstand me. If scripture says “Do it” then you do it. If scripture says “Do it not” then do not do it. If there is no command, look for a principle to guide you. However, if there is no scripture to command and no principle to guide then choose wisely, and confidently. Of course, someone may always come to you later and show you a principle or passage you missed. When this happens, accept the correction, repent of the action, ask forgiveness and move on. Christian morality was meant to improve us, not to condemn us—“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1).


Forgiveness Guaranteed?

1 John 1:9 (ESV) says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We all sin. We all fall short of perfection. The solution to these sins is taking them to Jesus for forgiveness, but we often feel we don’t deserve forgiveness or that we have been too bad to forgive. This passage is a wonderful promise of forgiveness because it is tied to very important qualities of Jesus. You can be sure of forgiveness, not because Jesus is “nice” or “kind” enough to forgive. Unfortunately, this is how we often imagine it. Niceness and kindness are vague concepts. What is the nice thing to do in every situation or the kind thing to do? Sometimes being kind or nice can actually inflict discomfort—such as to teach an important lesson. This passage does tie forgiveness to Jesus’ character, but not to these vague qualities. Instead it is tied to two of the strongest qualities of our savior. Our forgiveness is tied to Jesus being faithful and just. The first part, Jesus’ faithfulness says Jesus is going to do exactly what he is supposed to do when he is supposed to do it, without reservation, hesitation or failure. This faithfulness can be scary because if the right thing to do was to exact punishment then we would be punished. But the passage isn’t so vague. It says he “is faithful [to] forgive.” This means Jesus will always (another way of saying “faithfully”) forgive. He doesn’t wait for you to feel sorry enough, or for you to do enough penance. Confess and be forgiven. Jesus forgives because that is his role as our savior. God sent him to secure forgiveness and salvation for us, and he is faithful to do the will of the Father, at all times (John 6:39f). There is no danger of Jesus refusing to forgive you because to do so would violate the will of the father and make the son unfaithful—something he can never be.

But there is another quality of Jesus mentioned here and tied to our forgiveness: justice. It says that Jesus “is just [to] forgive us our sins.” Now wait just a minute! Justice is usually to be feared when guilty of sin. It is justice that balances the scales. Justice responds to evil with punishment. When one is harmed justice forces the guilty party to make recompense. When one sins, it is justice that ensures you receive the punishment you deserve. Justice is not usually associated with forgiveness. Actually, forgiveness is the antithesis of justice. If one is forgiven, then justice was not met. If one receives their just reward, then there was no forgiveness. However, through Christ the forgiveness and cleansing of our sins has changed from unjust to just. You see we deserved death for our sins. Justice would have repaid those sins with death (Romans 6:23a) to balance the scales. But the death of Christ balanced them on our behalf and in our place. This death paid for them fully—not just past sins but all sins (past, present, future). Since the sins are already paid for, forgiveness has already been secured (Hebrews 9:26ff). To refuse to forgive would, itself, be unjust. To refuse to forgive would declare the sacrifice of Christ insufficient.

There is a huge difference between justice without Christ and justice with Christ. Before coming to Christ we were responsible to pay for our own sins. Justice demanded payment. However, once we came to Christ he paid it all and justice assures any subsequent sins are forgiven, fully.

Now, some will still demand a price for this forgiveness—a price paid by the sinner. They will point out that this passage says we will be forgiven “if we confess our sins.” It is claimed (wrongly) that one who does not confess (or fails to confess) will then not be forgiven. This is only possible if the confession is what makes the forgiveness just. To claim this would be to claim that the confession is what makes the sacrifice of Christ sufficient to pay the price, and without our confession the sacrifice of Christ would not be enough. Such a claim, in effect, is a claim of needing “Jesus plus” (it requires my actions to complete the work of Christ). This is abominable. But if you know how to look at such statements you will understand that this is not what the author is saying.

He does not say, “If you confess you will be forgiven, but if you do not confess you will not be forgiven.” No. He says, “If you confess you will be forgiven” then justifies this with the qualities of Jesus. So the first part must be taken by itself, since the latter is meant to justify (or explain) the former. Does it mean that we will only be forgiven if we confess? Of course not.

The statement is what is known in logic as a conditional statement. These take the form of “If A then B” (or in propositional logic A→B). Such statements have two parts: a sufficient clause and a necessary clause. In this case “confess” is the sufficient clause, and “will be forgiven” is the necessary clause. To understand these let’s look at the rules for each:

Sufficient Clause: “A sufficient condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that, if satisfied, guarantees that S obtains.”

Necessary Clause: “A necessary condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that must be satisfied in order for S to obtain.”

(Taken from:

You see, logic (and language is really just a logical way of making statements) has rules for such statements. For a conditional statement to be true, the necessary statement must be true if the sufficient clause is true. In the example of A→B, if A is true, then B must be true or the statement is false. In this case, if I confess and Jesus does not forgive then the statement is false. However, the reverse (If I do not confess, I will not be forgiven) is not impled. That would be a very different statement: (A→B)&(~A→~B) which would be the equivalent of A↔B. Such would actually set confession as the equivalent to forgiveness (the two would define each other). It would ultimately be my confession that causes my forgiveness—a heretical idea. And to make confession a necessary for forgiveness, the statement would be “If you are forgiven, then you have confessed.” This is a very different statement—no longer a promise, but a simple declaration.

The statement “If you confess you will be forgiven” is saying that is you confess your sins you can be sure of being forgiven because of whom Jesus is and what he has done. However, it says nothing at all about what happens if you fail to confess or are unaware of sins and unable to confess them. Those are handled by the second statement: Jesus forgives because he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us. We can also rest assured in other promises, such as 1 Thessalonians 5:23f, which says (ESV), “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Add to this the promise of Jesus interceding for us forever as High Priest (Hebrews 6:19f). The Spirit will bring sins to your attention for you to confess. This is not because one must confess to be forgiven—the forgiveness is already secured. The Holy Spirit does this so that you can repent of the sin and turn from it. This is part of sanctification and growth, not a requisite of forgiveness or salvation, which were already secured.

Once you have come to Christ, you are never again in danger of unforgiven sins.


Morality and Law

ten commandmentsMany have complained to me about my believing the law (including the Ten Commandments) has passed away with the finished work of Christ. The claim is that if the Ten Commandments are gone, then the things forbidden by the commandments are now acceptable. So, if the law which says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is gone, then we are morally free to commit adultery. The problem comes from understanding the role of the law. The law does not make an action morally right or wrong. The law declared what was already immoral to be illegal. Without the law, the immoral is still immoral. Without the law, the threat of punishment for the immoral is gone, but that does not make it moral. Without the law we still must not commit the immoral because it remains immoral, even if there is no law to punish us.

But without further understanding this could lead us into a different error. If morality remains the same even though the law is gone what about dietary laws, restrictions on clothing, and tattoos? If the law declared the immoral to be illegal, then does that mean eating certain things was immoral prior to the law? And wouldn’t eating those things is still be immoral? If so, wouldn’t that mean Christ, by declaring all foods clean, permitted immorality; and the church, as a result, sanctions immorality?

Actually it doesn’t mean this at all. Some laws codified and provided punishment for actions that were always immoral (murder, adultery, disrespect of parents, idolatry, etc.). Other laws were meant to show deeper truths (such as those pointing to Christ like Sabbaths, sacrifices and rituals) or to produce an obviously unique people different from the surrounding communities (such as clothing laws, dietary restrictions, etc.). While these things were not themselves immoral prior to the law, because the law forbade them, committing them violated the law of God which was itself an immoral act. For these otherwise morally neutral but legally forbidden actions, violation was immoral. So, being free from the dietary law, I may eat whatever I choose so long as it is not otherwise immoral. Since food type is morally neutral, I am free to eat whatever. However, even without a law against adultery, adultery is still immoral and contrary to the life of the virtuous Christian.

So, while it is not possible to separate the moral law from the ceremonial law without doing damage to both, it is possible to separate those things that are immoral regardless of law and those things made immoral by inclusion in the law. With the passing away of the old covenant the former are still immoral as always, but the latter are no longer immoral because the law which forbade them has passed away. There is now no law to immorally violate.


Pharisee or Disciple

phariseesAn issue often discussed is the relation of Christians to the law. In Matthew 5:19-20 (LEB), Jesus says:

“Therefore whoever abolishes one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps them and teaches them, this person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

This is often interpreted as a sort of works salvation, claiming law-breaking as grounds for exclusion from the Kingdom. Verse 20, which says our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees or we “will certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven” (NIV) is a strong contributor this this view. The phrase translated ‘certainly not’ here is a strong emphatic negative (Dana & Mantey). It is a way of saying, “In this condition, this will absolutely not happen.” So one with a righteousness not exceeding the Pharisees is out of luck for entrance to the Kingdom.

Yet, does the passage say that breaking the commands of the law, or teaching others to break them will keep one out of the Kingdom? Actually it does not. It says one must have righteousness greater than the Pharisees, but what this means is explained in the following passages when Jesus gives the commands of the law a deeper and internal meaning—anger equivalent to murder, lust equivalent to adultery, etc. Verse 19 is important to understand because it is this verse which discusses breaking commands and teaching others to break them. However, it never says such behavior is grounds for exclusion from the Kingdom. It says those who do these things “will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.” This is not a statement about how to enter the Kingdom. It is a statement of status among those who are included in the Kingdom. Jesus does not make law-keeping the basis for entrance to the Kingdom. But what about verse 20 when he says those without righteousness greater than the Pharisees will never enter the Kingdom? Since having insufficient righteousness (not greater than the Pharisees) is grounds for exclusion, but breaking the commands of the law changes one’s status within the Kingdom but does not exclude one, the two must not be synonymous terms. In this way we see that Jesus cannot be defining ‘righteousness greater than the Pharisees’ as law-keeping.

The rest of the passage explains that this righteousness is from within. It flows from being a changed person—one who does not unjustly get angry or wrongly respond in anger; one who does not look with lust upon another; one who has no need to make oaths or pledges of right behavior or truth. Such righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees because theirs is simple rote rule-following—no interior change; no new condition. True righteousness is seen in Romans 3:21a (LEB), “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed…” This righteousness is not a matter of law-keeping. This righteousness is a matter of being internally changed. Such a person is more righteous than the Pharisees because the behavior springs from a changed nature—one which naturally obeys God and seeks his pleasure.

This picture of the changed nature fits perfectly with Jesus’ description of true righteousness in the remainder of Matthew five. It is this righteousness which Jesus works in us. It is this change which makes us citizens of the Kingdom, not law-keeping.

“So then, the law became our guardian until Christ, in order that we could be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:24f (LEB)


The Good, The Bad, and the Not so Ugly

“[…] that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” 2 Peter 1:4 b, c NIV.

This passage shows something foundational about the Christian faith. It shows a view of the world differing greatly from other ancient world views.

The first view this passage counters was the prevalent Platonic metaphysics of the day. Common among the Greek speaking world of the time was the idea that the spiritual realm was perfect and the fleshly realm corrupt. The flesh was seen as a prison in which the spirit was trapped. Everything to do with the flesh was corrupt and of no permanent spiritual value. The way to perfection was to escape the flesh. This very negative view of all things material actually crept into the church over time and influenced much of later church practice. However, the biblical view is not that the material universe is corrupt. Instead, God made it and declared all that he made good. The physical universe in which we live is good, but it is our sins, inspired by our evil desires, which corrupt the world. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the physical, the sensual, the fleshly—within proper bounds of righteousness. It was this for which Jesus was often attacked. Many times he was attacked for hanging out with sinners and dining with them. He even said that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Mt 11:19). For the follower of Christ, all food and drink is good and holy if enjoyed within the bounds of proper moderation and with thankfulness to God who provided. Likewise, sex is good and holy within the faithful bounds of marriage.

This passage also counters a second view. Though already ancient at the time, there is no evidence I am aware of that the author intended to counter this view or even knew about it. However, it is a common view in certain circles today, and this passage answers it perfectly. Buddhists view the problem of suffering to be one of desire. We suffer because we have desires. To escape suffering we must stop desiring. Though the apostle probably didn’t have this in mind, it is faced by the church today. A form of it is even found in the church. Many pretend today that we are not to have desires. They seem to think the Christian life is to be a form of monastic existence with no desires for money, a home, a family, etc. However, this passage shows it to be evil desires that are the problem. There is nothing wrong with wanting to acquire what you do not have—or wanting more of what you do have. The problem is when you either desire what you should not have, or when your desires lead you to behave in an unrighteous way to fulfill the desires.

The way to handle these desires is to see them as what they are. Imagine them as a checklist. We all have a list of things we want and things we do not want. If we listed these and put a check into the category of want and don’t want we can see what our desires are. Even the things we “don’t want” often manifest as negative desires (not evil, but as something we desire to not have or experience). I do not want to get sick. This is itself the negative side of a desire for health. The list of our desires actually says a great deal about us. We must understand that it is not the desire that drives us to act. We choose to act upon those desires. Through the indwelling Holy Spirit we are empowered to choose. We then make our choice. Desiring evil is not itself a sin—it is a symptom of sinfulness. It is when we act upon the evil desire that it becomes sin. It is this which shows the truth about us. For example, Jesus countered, in Matthew 5:27f, the belief that one was fine so long as one didn’t actually (physically) commit adultery, but only looked. Jesus said that anyone who looked on a woman with lust had already committed adultery with her “in his heart.” Is he saying that the look itself counts on that person’s tally of sins: “Hey! You looked! So we’ll mark down a sin check mark here in your book.” No. That is not what he meant. That would make the desire itself a sin. What he means is that the desire tells the truth about our heart. The drive for sin is internal and works itself out in our actions. The person who hasn’t actually touched the woman, may be without credited sin, but cannot claim to be truly righteous if he has lustful thoughts when looking at the woman. Those thoughts show that the potential for the sin dwells within the heart of the person. The man may not be committing the deed of adultery, but the look and thought prove that he is indeed an adulterous person—it shows the person still desires to sin, even if he is resisting it. The goal is to be transformed into a person who no longer even desires sin.

So understand your desires (good and evil) for what they are. They tell about your maturity and about where you are in your Christian walk. They tell you that you are not perfect—but neither are any of us. We are to seek improvement daily. Hopefully, we will no longer desire tomorrow what we desire today. In time the evil desires drop away as we are transformed more and more into the image of Christ. However, there is no reason to think the goal is for us to have no desires whatsoever. We are to desire justice, righteousness, more of Christ, a deeper walk with God, the love of our family, and yes, even a financially secure life. There is no sin in these desires—and neither is there sin in striving to see them come to pass.

The world was created to be a good place—it is the place we were created to occupy. God made it and declared it good. Desire is good—so long as it is desire for what is good, and leads us to fulfill those desires righteously.


The Wife of Your Youth

In my morning devotions, I’ve been reading from Malachi. This morning’s reading brought me to Malachi 2:16, which in the NIV reads:

“I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as with his garment,” says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.”

This passage is actually a bit hard to understand. The first part is not so hard, but the second part is confusing (“a man’s covering himself with violence as with his garment”). One thing that often helps is to look at other translations and this passage is no exception. I believe the translation in the English Standard Version is easier to understand and is closest to the intended meaning. It reads:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

This way of translating and interpreting the passage actually works better in the context of the whole passage. In verse 13 of this chapter the writer speaks of flooding the Lord’s altar with tears, and wailing while the Lord refuses their sacrifices. He tells them this is because they have broken faith with the wives of their youth (Malachi 2:14). God is bearing witness against them for their mistreatment of their wives in putting them away and not remaining faithful to them.

This helps to understand the portion about covering one’s garments with violence. God is saying, “I do not hear your prayers or receive your covenant sacrifices, because I am bearing witness to the violation of your marital covenant.” Interestingly, this same sentiment is found in 1 Peter 3:7 (ESV):

 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”

Don’t get upset about the term “weaker vessel” and don’t misapply it. This is not saying she is weaker. It is not a statement of a fact, but a statement of how a husband should care for and protect his wife. If you have two vessels, one of stone and the other of fine thin ceramic, you will treat one with greater care. Interestingly, the one treated with greater care is also the one that is the most precious.

Another passage to consider in this is Jesus words about forgiveness found in Matthew 6:14-16, which reads:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Jesus even gives a parable about a man seeking forgiveness, but then refusing to extend it to another. Imagine wanting the Lord to forgive us, but not being willing to forgive another. In the same way here we see husbands wanting to enjoy the benefits of their covenant with God, but refusing to follow their covenant with their wives.

Malachi is telling us that a husband who violates his covenant with his wife is harming himself. Funny, because most husbands think they will be happier with someone else, or without the responsibility of marriage. God is saying they will benefit from faithfulness. Unfaithfulness is harmful not only to the victim but just as harmful to the perpetrator.

But what does this unfaithfulness entail? In the NIV and some translations the word is “divorce.” In the KJV and some others the word is “put away” or “separate.” The word used actually means to divide from. This means that a husband who divides from his wife in violation of their covenant brings harm upon himself. Now, this should make us ask what sort of unity is entailed in the covenant relationship between a husband and wife, so that we can know what exactly a violation is.

Since the covenant is one of unity and oneness, in flesh, life and being, this violation of the covenant would be a refusal to protect the wife, or the relationship. Besides, divorce or physical separation, this would include abuse, sexual unfaithfulness, emotional distance, inconsideration. There are many ways to harm the covenant, and all are an abomination to the Lord. Anything that divides a husband and wife is abominable.

We husbands are commanded to love our wives as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25) and to work hard to encourage, equip and strengthen her. Keep the covenant with your wife, whatever the cost.


Shut the Church Doors?

This morning, in my devotional time, I’ve been reading from a very familiar passage (Malachi 1:10f). This passage, in the NIV reads:

“’Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

This passage is heard repeatedly throughout the Christian Church as a call to give to God the best that we have, rather than trying to cheat by giving less than our best. However, while reading it this morning I was struck with a very different perspective. The problem with the usual application is that the passage is not speaking to the one bringing the offering to the temple. It speaks to the ones whose job is to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the giver—the priests. In 1:6d we read: “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.” Then, after the passage we are looking at, the Lord continues, “And now this admonition is for you, O priests.”

The priests were receiving crippled and diseased offerings from the people. Rather than inspecting them properly and refusing these offerings they are receiving them. Doing this, of course, encourages others to do likewise. So, this makes me wonder why the priests would do this. Why would the priests accept what is not acceptable?

You have to understand that there were several offerings given through the ritual calendar year. However, most of these offerings either went to the upkeep of the priesthood—the food and money to support them and their families—or were shared as a meal between the priest and the giver. A portion of most offerings went to the priests themselves. Like most human behavior we can best understand it by understanding the self-interest of the people involved. How would this work for the self-interest of the priests? Tied to this self-interest is the old adage of “follow the money.”

When a person looked through their herd to find an offering, they knew it was going to cost them. The cost would be relative to the animal selected. For example, offering a heifer with many more years of potential breeding would cost far more than offering the old tired bred-out cow which would likely never have another healthy calf—if she did breed again the chances are high she and the calf may both be lost at calving. One costs years of future wealth and the other only costs one cow at the end of a lifetime of returns. If a herdsman had two calves, one with a twisted leg, more likely to be taken by predators, and the other healthy, giving the healthy one costs more and leaves the herdsman with a chance of more loss after giving—which requires a greater deal of faith.

This adds an interesting dynamic. When giving costs more we tend to give less—staying much closer to what is the minimum requirement. When it costs less, we can give more of a lesser value which encourages giving more. If herdsmen can meet their religious duty and look good in the community while still clearing their herds of the unwanted and unprofitable stock, they are likely to give more. This is where the self-interest of the priests comes in, and inspires the Lord’s rebuke. If the priests just look the other way, they get more. If they permit a lesser quality offering they get more. Meat is meat. If the herdsman can give three cows when he otherwise would have given only two, the priest is enriched.  All that would matter to the priest is that the meat would still be good after the animal is sacrificed. This is a much lower standard. The priest is looking at the sacrifices according to their benefit to themselves rather than their honor to the Lord.

Now, let’s apply this today. We no longer offer animal sacrifices. Christ’s sacrifice was the final offering of this kind. Our sacrifices today are good deeds done in the flesh and this includes offerings given to the Lord’s service and the expansion of his kingdom. What is in the self-interest of today’s “temple staff”? I am speaking of the vocational minister—the modern professional pastor. Larger offerings provide larger salaries. I am not decrying salaries or vocational ministry. However, we can all be tempted to do what is necessary to bring in those larger offerings, not because it benefits the kingdom, but because it benefits us. When this happens the kingdom is despised, while the pastor profits.

Larger offerings are easier with larger crowds. In this way each may give less value, but more is received and the pastor’s ‘market value’ and salary grows. Malachi’s charges are lived out in the modern church by the pastor who waters down the Word; who accepts less holiness from his people; who makes discipleship as soft as possible; who would rather pat his people on the back than call them to repentance. Such churches pack in the people. Such churches gather in large offerings and pay huge salaries. But is it possible Christ would rephrase the words of Malachi 1:10a as, “Oh, that one of you would shut the church doors…”?

I don’t want to go too far with the pastor/priest comparison. The priests of the New Testament are all the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). But should this make the words of Malachi 2:7 apply any less to today’s pastor?

“For the lips of the [pastor]ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord almighty.”

We must never accept lesser from ourselves than what God demands.