Tag 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.

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God Must?

Today is Christmas morning. Of course, since most of the family other than me works today, this means I am spending the morning in my usual way. I’m sitting here alone enjoying coffee and reading. My reading lately has been in Grudem’s Systematic Theology because of a graduate theology class I am taking.

In Grudem’s chapter on Justification, I was struck by the construction of a statement. I was struck by (1) the oddness of the construction and (2) by the power of that same construction. However, there is one more thing that struck me: though it contains a powerful statement, I believe (3) it leaves us with possible conclusions about justification that are far weaker than the subject demands.

On page 723, Grudem defines Justification as, “an instantaneous act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight” (emphasis in the original). This is a great definition, but actually pretty standard. It was not this that so struck me this morning. What struck me was earlier in the chapter, when introducing the concept of justification. As the gospel is effectively proclaimed to those who are regenerated and they respond in faith, they are converted and “…God must respond to our faith and do what he promised, that is, actually declare our sins to be forgiven. This must be a legal declaration concerning our relationship to God’s laws, stating that we are completely forgiven and no longer liable to punishment.”

  • The Oddness of the Construction: I find it odd to hear the words “God must…” Can you imagine anything binding an obligation upon the all-powerful creator of the universe? Is there anything that can bind God, or limit him? The very idea of the subject “God” as understood in the Christian sense tied to the predicate “must…” seems to stretch the imagination and call for ridicule. God cannot be bound, can he? God cannot be obligated, can he? It seems laughable to imagine any creature thinking the God of heaven and earth can be bound to any course of action. This is what makes Grudem’s statement so odd. However, there is truth to the statement and the truth is far more powerful than we often imagine. We discover this truth when we understand what binds God in this instance—what makes it obligatory upon God to take this action?
  • The Power of the Construction: Grudem actually gives us the reason for declaring God to be obligated to act—promise. God promised to respond to our faith by justifying us. But how does that obligate God? You and I make promises all the time. Some of them we keep. Many of them we do not keep. For humans breaking a promise is as easy as breathing. Some people actually make promises with the intention of never keeping them. The promise is simply a rhetorical tool to manipulate another: “I promise I’ll do this, if you do that.” Then when we have what we want we walk away breaking the promise. So, why is it that the great all-powerful God cannot do this? Is there some more powerful force or deity making sure he keeps his word? Of course this is not the reason. There is nothing outside of God controlling or binding God. If God chooses his course of action with unfettered freedom (not bound by any other ethic but his own declarations), how can we be sure he will keep his promises? Could he not arbitrarily decide to break his promise and by declaration make that action good? How can we say he must do what he promised? One answer is found by considering the nature of God and of divine foreknowledge. However, simply saying God will keep his promise because it is in his nature to do so seems a bit…simplistic. I would argue a different tack. I would argue it from the inerrancy of God:
    1. God, by his nature, cannot err. If he declares something to be true, then it is true. If he declares something will happen then it will happen. If his declaration does not come true, then he was wrong—he would be in error, and thus not inerrant.
    2. Let’s apply this truth about God to the idea of a divine promise. If God promises at a point in time (our time, since God is not limited to time) to respond to those who come to him in saving faith a certain way, he is actually making a declaration of what will happen—a prior declaration of an event. He is promising that if at some time you do A, he will respond with B (Don’t mistake this for the idea of works salvation. We are simply discussing things that are later down what many, like Grudem, call the Order of Salvation—election, regeneration and proclamation have already happened causing the person to respond in believing faith, confess and be converted). God is declaring in effect, if this happens that will result. The ‘this’ is my response to his actions in saving me and the ‘that’ is his response to my faith. He declared, “If we came to him in believing faith he would accept us and justify us.” If he does not do so, then he was wrong. Therefore, God would not be inerrant. He would not have perfect knowledge. So, because God promised he would respond to our faith with justification, we can say that he must respond to our faith with justification. In this way God is obligated to act on our behalf and declare us justified—not guilty of our sins.
  • The weakness of the construction: as I said there is however one way in which this construction is still weak. However, the weakness is not in the statement itself, but in the way many might interpret it. If justification means God declaring us ‘not guilty’ of the sins we have committed, we need to understand what this means. Many will be tempted to think this means God has simply created a legal fiction—in which he says ‘not guilty’ of those who are actually ‘guilty.’ This is problematic though. If God is declaring you not guilty when you are in fact guilty then we, once again, bounce up against the inerrancy of God. This is not what is happening though. God is not just deciding to now consider you guiltless. This would be little more than divine self-deception. But don’t forget that what God declares cannot be wrong. If God is going to declare you sinless, and not guilty, then at that moment you are sinless and not-guilty. But how can this be? Yesterday, I committed sins X, Y and Z. Today, I stand guilty as charged. But today, I respond to the gospel message in saving faith, confess my sins and am converted. At that moment God declares me not guilty of X, Y and Z. How? I am guilty. I committed the sins! They are mine and so is the guilt. How can God do this? The secret to this is in the sacrifice of Christ. You see, God is not simply declaring some legal fiction. He is actually making you not-guilty because he puts those sins you have committed upon Christ. The sins and the guilt of them become Christs—no different than if Christ had committed them instead of you. Of course, there is one difference. If Christ had committed them he would have died for his own sins, with no benefit for you. By dying sinless, our sins are placed upon him (which lifts them off of us) and the guilt of those sins is poured out upon him (removing it from us). When God justifies us he not only speaks the words “not guilty” he has also made us actually “not guilty.” At that moment, I have committed no sins—they all belong to Christ. God can declare me legally sinless and righteous by imparting Christ’s righteousness to me (Romans 3:21-22).

When you came to Christ, you were justified. This means God has declared you not guilty because you are no longer guilty. You are not guilty because all the guilt was placed upon Christ. If it was all placed upon Christ, then there is none left upon you and you are now, through divine intervention, truly guiltless. If any guilt remains upon you—if any stain of sin remains upon you—then it was not all placed upon Christ.

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Intercession for Sinners

Hebrews 7:25 NIV

“He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”

This beautiful promise came to mind this morning while reviewing some passages in Hebrews as part of today’s message. Let’s consider this for a moment and some of the implications of it.

First, it is a promise of security: he is able (capable, sufficient) to save completely (without exception, without limit). He can save us. He can save us regardless of situation, action or condition. There is nothing from which he cannot deliver you and no sin from which he cannot cleanse you.

Second, he lives forever interceding for us. This means the promise here is not only salvation and cleansing from past sins, but also includes future sins as well. This is because he is actively interceding on our behalf forever and always. He is interceding for me while I type this. He is interceding for you while you read it. You and I are constantly upon his lips in intercession. As a need arises, he is there lifting up that need. As a sin is committed he is there, as our High Priest, interceding for us (this is the context of the promise).

This latter fact got me to thinking about something important. How do we react to and act towards our fellow Christians who fall into sin? Should we condemn them? Should we reject them? While scripture does tell us there are times to practice church discipline—even to the point of disfellowship—understand this is always to be for the purpose of restoring the brother to righteous living and returning the brother to the fold. Church discipline is as much a part of helping the one disciplined as it is part of purifying the church. This passage gives us something important to consider when wondering how to act toward a sinning brother or sister. It should also temper our zeal to condemn and cast out. Look at the passage and ask, “What is Jesus doing in response to the sin?” He is before the throne of grace interceding as High Priest. He is lifting the sinner up before the Father, pleading the presence of his own blood to indicate the sin is already paid for. He is also interceding through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit indwelt Church to discipline and restore the sinner. Perhaps we should all have this image in mind when dealing with sinning brethren. It should be difficult to reject and condemn a person for whom our Lord is actively interceding. If the intercession of Jesus is sufficient for the Father, shouldn’t it be sufficient reason for us to come along side our sinning brethren?

Only when that image is firmly in mind are we ready to approach and minister to the sinner in our midst.

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To Die For Christ is to Live for Christ

As Christians, we’ve been called to willingly lay down our lives for Christ. This means we are willing to die rather than renounce our faith. It means we will surrender our life before we surrender our allegiance to Christ. However, it’s too easy to put this off as some future possibility, with little meaning for today. We forget that the call to die for Christ actually defines how we live today. In Galatians Two: Twenty, Paul says, “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, I live by faith in the Son of God.” The call to die for Christ is not restricted to some future persecution. The call to die for Christ is to be lived out in the here and now. If you have been saved by Christ, you died. Each and every day you should remind yourself that you are dead—no longer alive. You now live as Christ. When you act, Christ is acting. When you speak, Christ is speaking. When you love, Christ is loving.

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Being Like Jesus

I often find myself praying to be more like Jesus. I want to learn to respond to the world as he did. I want to feel for the lost as he did. I want to mourn sin as he did. And if I’m honest, I expect a certain amount of honor for all of this. After all, Jesus was honored. Right? We forget that other than a small ragtag group of disciples (varying from a dozen to perhaps around a hundred), Jesus was despised. Most of his opposition came from the religious leaders, who should have recognized him as Messiah. As I was praying this morning, it dawned on me that truly being like Jesus means being attacked, harassed, insulted and crucified by the most religious among us.

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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: http://philosophy.wisc.edu/hausman/341/Skill/nec-suf.htm)

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.

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God’s Pleasure

We talk a great deal about God’s forgiveness. But I wonder what image many of us have about it. It is quite true that we can only be forgiven because God gave his son to die for our sins. Unfortunately, we can often find ourselves thinking in a surprisingly negative way. It is too easy, and I have seen it too often, that we imagine going to God with our sins and him saying, “Well, a deal is a deal. I agreed to forgive you because of Jesus’ death and will have to abide by that agreement.” Fortunately, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. This morning I was reading Micah 7:18 which, in the ESV, reads:

“Who is steadfast like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.”

God doesn’t forgive because of a bargain struck and sealed in the blood of Christ (though it is only through this blood that forgiveness is available). This sacrifice makes it possible for us to be forgiven, but as Romans 5:8 tells us this sacrifice was done because of God’s love. You see, God does not forgive because he is bound to by a bargain or contract. God forgives us because he loves us and (hear me on this next part) because he delights in forgiving your sins. Imagine that for a moment! God of heaven, maker of heaven and earth, omnipotent, omniscient, holy, and just judge of the universe takes pleasure in forgiving your sins.

Don’t go to him sheepishly racked with guilt. Go to him quickly, boldly, happily saying, “Father I have sinned. Please forgive me.” He takes pleasure in forgiving your sins, so be quick to please your Lord. You do this by taking your sins to him, turning from them and seeking his face.

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A Holy Life

I Peter 1:15-16 NIV says, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy,'”

Priests and pastors are often considered to be holy people. That is fine as far as it goes, but the fact is that the idea of a clergy set apart from the laity for a more holy life is inaccurate. All Christians are called to holy living. Peter addressed the words above to the early believers. Not just to the leadership, but to Christian churches in general. The apostle Paul concurs, writing to the church at Thessalonica, “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” (I Thess. 4:7 NIV) What does it mean to be holy? The letter of James gives us a short description: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27 NIV) In other words, a life of social responsibility combined with personal piety.

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Christ the Triumphant

Colossians 2:14-15 speaks of Jesus’ accomplishments on the cross. In the NIV this says:

“[…] having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

This translation says it was the ‘charge of legal indebtedness’ which was canceled. Other translations make it sound like the law itself was canceled. The KJV for example says:

“[…] blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”

One reading the KJV and several others (including the original NIV from 1984) would assume it was the law being canceled (KJV: ordinances; 1984 NIV: written code).Those reading the latest NIV or others, like the LEB, would see this as canceling the list of debts (violations). This distinction is important because if only the debts are canceled, then the law is still in force. If the law is canceled then the debts against the law go with them. The latter removes not only the current debt, but also removes any possibility of future indebtedness. The former removes past debts, but leaves the possibility of future indebtedness. So, it is important to know exactly what is said here. The word used is δόγμασιν, which is the word for ordinances, or commands. Its root is the origin of our word ‘dogma.’ The passage says the ordinances (laws) themselves, which once condemned us, have been removed from the page. The NAS translates it as:

“[…] having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

The word for ‘canceled’ or ‘blotting out’ is the word for a scribe using a sponge to remove the ink from the page. In their day, they had no pencils and erasers. To erase something from the page the scribe would use a damp sponge to blot the ink from the page. It is this which Paul says Jesus did to the ordinances which were bringing us condemnation—he washed the words right off the page.

The passage goes on and says Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, making a spectacle of them. He triumphed over them by the cross. The imagery here is that of an ancient Roman Triumph. When a general returned from campaign, the Senate would often vote them a triumph. This would involve what we would recognize as a parade. During this, the enemy leaders captured would be paraded through the city before the people. At the end of the triumph the captives would be killed. It is this graphic image that Paul uses to describe Jesus victory over the ordinances and law.

In case you are still of the opinion that this only referred to the list of debts for past violations and not a triumph over the law itself, remember that this would leave you facing the possibility of future law violation. However, Paul, in verse 16 says not to let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or judge you concerning religious festivals, holy days, or even a Sabbath day. If the law was still in place, you would still be liable to judgment over these. Christ wiped the law off the page. He took it away and nailed it to the cross. He paraded it in a victory march and dispatched it. The law was taken away and we no longer face the guilt of past violation, neither do we face danger of future violation.

This does not make us free to sin, however. Paul says the law was a shadow of realities to come. The reality is found in Christ (Col 2:17). We no longer live to keep the law. We no longer live to sin. We live for Christ; we live in Christ; we live empowered by Christ.

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