Tag Archives: righteousness

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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Another Standard

The ethical standards of God’s people are mostly universal—right is right, wrong is wrong. Situations cannot change these. So, if an action is declared to be sin in scripture, then it is sin regardless of situation. Of course, there are times when situation can impact the moral status of an action. For example, it might define or refine an otherwise acceptable action by showing it to be morally forbidden because it is inappropriate for a specific situation. Killing is one example. The same God who said “Thou shalt not kill,” gave orders for his people to wage war, and to execute capital punishment. This shows the commandment forbade unjust killing—murder. This is an example of how refining terms and defining conditions can make something, otherwise forbidden, permissible. This is because in the situation, the command doesn’t apply.

The same thing can happen when conditions forbid something otherwise permitted. One example in scripture is alcohol. Scripture not only permits wine but actually encourages drinking it. However, in the right situation (in the presence of a weak brother whom our freedom could harm) we are morally obligated to abstain. This is because we have a higher standard—care for brethren—than the freedom we otherwise would enjoy. We give up the freedom to favor our brothers.

I was reminded of this while meditating on my own duties as a pastor. One of my duties includes prayer for my church and people. My people take care of my financial needs to free me to care for their spiritual needs. There are two primary needs I am to meet: prayer and preaching the Word. It is important that I do these—spending the appropriate time doing each. This actually got me thinking about certain actions which make these hard.

Just like all people I have things I enjoy and things that I do not enjoy. I face temptations to refrain from good and to do evil. I must live my life as an example of proper Christian morals. If an action is morally forbidden, then I must teach it as such. If an action is morally obligatory then I must teach that as well. Since I must teach it, and must also avoid hypocrisy, I must live out those moral standards. This is actually easier than many might realize. I have always been a “rules” guy and have little problem following the plain teaching of scripture. The problem is those areas that are morally neutral. Following the plain demands of scripture requires simple obedience but these neutral areas require wisdom.

These morally neutral situations can include anything. They can be relationships, entertainments, or anything else that scripture does not specifically forbid or command. As you go through life you will also find these to be quite a large part of life—scripture can only lay out so many scenarios with direct commands on how to deal with them. These can then be expanded by applying underlying principles to other related situations. However, the average human life can never be fully directed from beginning to end with direct commands: “In this situation, you must do that; in that situation, you must do this.” Most of life will fall into the morally neutral—a decision that is neither commanded nor forbidden.

While each course of action has its own benefits and problems, its own pros and cons, there is one standard that I have found helps when dealing with the morally neutral—with those questions of action not spelled out with an obvious biblical command or principle.

Let me start by saying, if scripture says “Thou shalt not,” then THOU SHALT NOT! If scripture says, “Thou shalt,” then THOU SHALT! Pretty simple. Beyond this, if a principle can be reasonably deduced from these direct commands applying them appropriately in other ways, then follow where reasonable exegesis of scripture leads. If you discern a principle that applies to A, then apply it to A. If it reasonably applies to B, then feel free to apply it to B.

But handling those situations for which there is no direct command or reasonable principle to give guidance can be difficult. One standard that will help is the condition within you which such actions produce. One such example I use is in my own life as a pastor. If I find a course of action for which I do not have direct guidance or a rational principle to follow, I watch to see the effect it has on my spiritual life—especially my discipline in areas of my pastoral responsibility.

Even if the action is morally neutral, with nothing to tell me whether I should or should not do it, I will refrain if doing it makes me feel unworthy of praying or preaching. Does the course of action keep you off your knees and out of the Word? If so, then even if it is otherwise morally neutral, you morally should avoid it. Avoid it for your own sake. Avoid it to not only please the Lord, but to keep yourself ready to serve him effectively.

This means anything, even if it is otherwise permissible, which gets in the way of my prayer life or my study of scripture must be avoided, resisted and abstained from. While I have freedom to exercise them, the results are not beneficial, so they must be rejected. This is why Paul was able to say, “All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

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Handling Silence

This morning a friend posted a meme on Facebook that got my attention. Now, before I continue, understand that I consider this brother a friend and respect his views and opinions greatly. So nothing I say here should be taken as a rebuke of the brother. Everything here is meant to address the meme itself and the underlying view. Whether my friend actually holds this view or not is unknown to me. Even if he does, that doesn’t matter because I intend to show some problems with the view and not with those who hold it. One thing we need to learn as Christians is to separate the person from the views they espouse. I actually sent him this for review before posting.

The Meme is posted here:

bible doesnt say

It shows the sons of Aaron—Nadab and Abihu—offering incense. It is of course based on the story of these two who were punished for offering ‘strange fire’ upon the altar.

If you look at the meme you see Abihu asking Nadab if he is sure this act is acceptable, to which Nadab responds “Yeah bro! The Bible doesn’t say we can’t.” The reason this meme inspired such thought in me is that it commits a serious error. I’ll list those here, but must first lay out the underlying concept this meme is meant to ridicule.

There is a train of thought which says, “If the Bible doesn’t say it is forbidden, then it is permissible.” It is a way of interpreting the Scriptures that would take all moral considerations and ask: “Does the Bible make a positive command concerning it?”

It’s common to look at the decision making process this way:

I am considering action A.

Does the Bible command me to take action A?

If not then I am not required to take action A.

Does the Bible forbid action A?

If not then I am free to perform action A.

However, it is based on a mistaken idea. It assumes the Bible contains instructions (positive to prescribe or negative to proscribe) for all possible moral considerations. There is a way to handle this question, which is acceptable (I’ll address it in a moment), but the problem is when people do, as the meme implies, and make anything not negatively proscribed into positive permission. They assume that because the Bible doesn’t forbid something they should therefore consider it proper and moral, as if Scripture was giving them direct permission through its silence.

Now, before going further, allow me to point out that the meme itself, even ignoring the underlying assumptions, is actually fallacious. It is pulling this story out of context and applying it in a way the Scriptures never intended. Actually, Nadab and Abihu knew their action was abominable. The meme insinuates that they had no command against doing this so they assumed it was acceptable. However, even the passage which records this (Leviticus 10:1f) says their actions were “contrary to his command (NIV)” or were actions “which he had not commanded them (LEB).” Leviticus 9 tells of them helping their father perform the proper sacrifice, so they knew what was proper. They were not acting in the absence of a direct command. They were acting in opposition to a direct command: Scripture said how to sacrifice and make offerings and forbade doing them any other way. If the Bible says “Do this and this alone” any person deciding “I’ll do that instead” is disobedient. Because of this, the meme’s subject matter doesn’t even apply to the argument about whether all actions not negatively forbidden are permissible—it’s a misapplication.

Getting back to the issue this meme poorly addressed, I spoke earlier of those who say “Anything not forbidden in the Bible is acceptable.” I would argue both sides of this question. First off there is the question of whether silence in Scripture should be taken as permission, but one must also consider the implications of silence in Scripture.

To take silence in Scripture as permission is fallacious: “God did not address it, so he must approve of it.” Actually God not addressing it in Scriptures just means it was not an issue he chose to address—for whatever reason. It may still be unacceptable, but God, in his sovereignty, chose not to speak to the issue. Perhaps it wasn’t an issue in the age when Scripture was being revealed. Perhaps it wasn’t a major consideration among the people to whom he was speaking. We must use our divinely given wisdom and the prompting of the Holy Spirit to know whether we should take an action or not take it when Scripture is silent. But never make the mistake of assuming Biblical silence equates to Biblical sanction.

But now, there is another dimension to this discussion—the implications of scriptural silence. What about those addressing an issue upon which Scripture is silent, who decide that even in the face of silence action A is not permissible (not something God would want them to do)? This is fine. This is an act of conscience. The problem comes when that person takes this decision and tries to make it a command for all to follow: “I believe this is forbidden even though Scripture is silent on it. Therefore, I insist it is forbidden to all Christians.” There is a problem with this—and not just a small one. Such Christians need to rethink their view of Scripture. Most protestant Christians would say, “Scripture is our only rule for faith and practice.” If so, then if you cannot find a command on it in scripture, or at least a concept that reasonably allows an inference of a command, you cannot declare it binding upon all. It remains a matter of personal conviction—it may still be unacceptable, but it is up to the Holy Spirit to guide the heart of the other person to that conclusion (which you are of course free to encourage through teaching and counsel). Some examples of this are eating certain foods, drinking alcohol or smoking. There are many areas of our lives which fall under this category.

We must be careful not to take silence of Scripture as permission. We equally must be careful about making Scripture say what the author of Scripture never chose to say. Both practices abuse the Scripture and do not show proper respect for the revelation of God to man.

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Haggai for today

secondtempleHaggai 1:4-6 (ESV) says, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

Sadly, this passage is one of the many taken out of context and misused by well-meaning pastors. It is quoted most often in sermons on tithing, telling people that they must give more to church or God will not bless the works of their hands. This is done by equating the local church with the Old Covenant temple. It is this assumption that causes the problem.

Yes, the passage does command building a temple. Yes, the people were to bring in their tithes (the portion of their wealth owed to the upkeep of God’s worship). However, equating the temple with the local church facility twists scripture. The Old Testament temple was never meant as a picture of the local church (by this word I mean the building). The Old Testament temple was a picture of Christ. The temple was symbolic of his body. This is why he said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it up.” (John 2:19 ESV)

Understanding the temple was symbolic of the physical body of Christ—and his dual role as King and High Priest—helps us to better understand how to apply the words of Haggai, today. In Haggai’s day the people had decided it was time to concentrate on their own wealth, homes and farms, but was not yet time to build the temple, the House of God. I’m certain they assured themselves that once they were financially secure there would be time to build the temple and restore the worship of YHWH. God points out to them that without his blessing their efforts to provide for themselves were futile. Their best efforts would reap substandard results unless God worked on their behalf. This blessing was tied to their priorities. Haggai commands them to reevaluate their priorities and put God and His worship above their own drive for prosperity and security. They were to look to God for these.

How does this look today? While this is not a command to build a local church building, there is something to this passage about building the Church. But first we need to see the New Testament equivalent to the command of Haggai. We see this in Matthew 6:31-33 (ESV), “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Just as they were to place a priority on building the temple, we are to place a priority on building the Kingdom of God. So, how do we build the Kingdom?

We build the Kingdom by obeying Christ in morals, so the world is attracted. We build the Kingdom by obeying Christ in reaching the lost, so the world is transformed. We build the Kingdom by standing for righteousness in the face of the world’s onslaught. We build the Kingdom by being the very hands of Christ ministering to the physical needs of those around us. These are our priority and meeting our physical needs comes after these. Obedience to Haggai is found in obedience to Matthew 6:31-33. But does this have nothing to do with the local church?

The local church (the body, not the building) is the physical manifestation of the body of Christ in a local community. This means building up the local church, if it is a true church manifesting Christ to the world, is a major part of building the Kingdom. Actually, the lion’s share of our Kingdom building will be done in the local church—and should be. But to make Haggai into a command to tithe or to build a nice church facility is like painting the Mona Lisa but stopping with her nose.

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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)

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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.

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The Importance of Fellowship

fellowshipWe in the church are all disciples of Christ and, as such, we have been given the responsibility to take the good news to the world, sharing it with others. Too often we lose sight of the goal of this sharing. We don’t share merely to elicit agreement with our beliefs. While important, this is not the primary goal for which we strive. Neither is the physical response of baptism and church membership the actual goal. The goal of sharing the gospel is taking those who were once enemies of God and making them into mature disciples of Christ. Some will argue that assent to the gospel, baptism and church membership are the definition of discipleship, but I would argue this is only the beginning. Yes, at that point the responder has taken on the status of being a disciple.

There is far more to being a disciple than simply assenting to doctrines, being baptized in water and developing the habit of attending church. A mature disciple is one who exhibits the defining qualities of Christ in the flesh. Because this person has taken on the qualities of Christ, this person responds as Christ would to situations. This person lives as Christ would. The person desires what Christ desired. When one sees the mature disciple, one sees Christ. This is our goal.

Now, think about this definition of a mature believer and ask, “How much of what is done in church actually contributes to this goal?” How many of our programs actually encourage us to live like Christ? Then ask how many of those that encourage this sort of life actually empower us to do this? Think hard about it and I am sure you will notice that few of our most cherished programs actually qualify.

You may say, “Well, Sunday school does this.” You are partly right. Perhaps you will mention Bible Study or biblically focused sermons.  I would argue that very little disciplemaking is actually going on in these settings. Before you accuse me of downplaying the importance of preaching and teaching the Bible, allow me to explain. These educational programs are very useful in teaching what Jesus did. They are very useful in teaching what scripture commands us to do—when and where it commands. They teach us what scripture forbids—too often these even throw in a few things it actually does not forbid. But is this enough to learn how to live as Christ in the world? I would argue that it’s a good start, but only a start.

I have taught many people to drive. I’ve taught my wife, my three children and several immigrants how to drive. Let me use driver instruction as an illustration of disciplemaking. When you teach someone to drive, the goal is getting them to be able to safely, legally and responsibly handle a moving vehicle in a variety of situations. The possible situations one will face over a lifetime of driving are so numerous no one could predict all the possible scenarios. Now suppose I want to take someone who does not know how to operate an automobile and make them into a skilled driver. I could start with classes—and classes are important. We could teach them about the parts of the car; the way the parts work; the way to maintain them. When they understand these we might have a class on the laws of the road. Then we could teach them about what to do when the roads are slippery or when driving at night. We would, of course, want to teach them how to merge on to a highway (as one who lives in San Antonio, I can assure you many people need a refresher course on this one!). They need to learn how to change lanes safely (don’t get me started on this one!).

Suppose we sat our prospective new driver down, gave them classroom instructions in all of these and then simply threw them a license and a set of car keys, and cut them loose. You’d have chaos (something very close to Loop 1604 during San Antonio rush hour). You would have just guaranteed that person’s failure. What did we miss? We missed practical application. We missed road instruction. Someone learns to turn safely by actually turning a vehicle—they learn the feel of the car pulling to one side, the feel of the accelerator and the brake. They learn how to change lanes by actually doing it. They learn to merge on the highway by getting onto and off of the highway multiple times. They learn to drive at night by driving at night.

Learning to drive has a great deal in common with making disciples. We want people to live, walk, and talk like Christ. Sunday school and Bible Study lay a good foundation when done properly. Church programs can attract people in, and give them some instruction. However, those who come in will never really learn to be Christ in the assortment of situations life throws at them, unless they observe someone else living like Christ. This is why fellowship is so important—I define that here as the personal interaction between the present and the potential people of God (between those who have been reached, but also between us and those we strive to reach).

We make disciples by being disciples in the presence of those who are either non-disciples or who are immature disciples. We make disciples not merely by teaching what Christ did in the past, or what Christ has commanded. This is insufficient because life is full of decisions that Christ did not have an opportunity to model. This does not detract from him being tempted in every way as we are. However, it recognizes the difference between our world and theirs. Neither does scripture offer a black and white command for every possible decision we face. This was actually a major contributor to the strife between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. Life was full of situations for which the scriptures gave no direct command so the rabbis had to interpret. They often decided a safe choice was to pile rules upon rules. Jesus showed a different way. He lived for years with his disciples modeling the right way to them. They saw how to live a righteous life through close proximity to one who was living a righteous life.

Disciplemaking must include practical field training. This means getting into the lives of other disciples. This requires us to spend time together—to visit with one another; to talk; to interact at various levels. The church has a long history of fellowship—usually defined as a Potluck meal. I would contend that biblical fellowship is far more than a meal, and that biblical fellowship is to be a primary activity of God’s people in church—not something relegated beneath the message, but an essential part of learning the lessons of the message. The church meeting (the service set aside for worship and the message) is the classroom. The world is where we practically apply what we learn. However, our preparation is not complete without the lab between the lesson and the application. Our fellowship is the lab where we learn to apply the things we learned from the message and the exposition of scripture. It is where we learn to interact in a godly way, to handle strife, to forgive, to bless, etc. Then, after we have not only absorbed the facts of the lesson, but have learned to apply them, we are prepared to go out into the world and live them out.

Biblical preaching and teaching are important. But fellowship between those so taught is equally important. We must build into our churches more opportunities to fellowship with one another. We must stop relegating these opportunities to the occasional second tier status to which such fellowship has for too long been exiled. The interaction of God’s people is just as important for making disciples as anything that will ever come from the pulpit.

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