How Can You Tell?

There is no shortage of “new” interpretations of Christianity. One need not look very far to find them; sometimes they are advertised in the titles (The New Christians, A New Kind of Christian, etc.). While some of this phrasing is more about marketing than about substantive changes in what Christians should believe, there are some subtleties that go unnoticed. One way of detecting them is to begin with what Jesus himself has to say about his death and resurrection, which is where the text for today takes us. John 8:21-32:

21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” 23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” 25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. 26 I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” 27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. 28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. 29 And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” 30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The closer Jesus came to the final entry into Jerusalem and onto a cross, the more his words began to focus on the centrality of that event for faith. As we continue the series for Lent, I want to direct our thoughts toward the question of whether our own understanding of salvation is sufficiently centered there so that we can read any interpretation, new or old, with both the necessary parameters or boundaries and the openness to different ways expressing that truth.

What are the boundaries or parameters I have in mind? While they are not fully drawn in this passage, there are a couple of ideas which seem indispensable to an honest interpretation of what Jesus had to say to those who were dubious, at best, about his identity. One of those ideas is the unity of the Father and the Son. Another is the somewhat surprising claim (at this point in his life) that he would be recognized for who he is when he would be “lifted up,” a phrase to which he will return with wider application in Ch. 12. At a minimum, these ideas seem to require that we look unfavorably toward those interpretations which on hand divorce the Father from the Son in the work of salvation, and on the other hand toward those which implicitly or explicitly minimize the necessity of the cross.

It is understandable that we might want to acknowledge as wide an inclusion of people in the saving work of Christ as possible; in fact, it is even like God Himself to desire this, for He is not willing that any perish. But the other side of that is that He does want them to come to a knowledge of the truth, which is what Jesus says is known by “abiding” in his word.

My question for today is this: what it means to abide in the word of Jesus? Should we think of this phrase as the equivalent of scripture, or just of the “red letters” (the words actually attributed to Jesus himself in the gospels)? Or is his “word” more inclusive than the recorded message? What do you think?

Another Thought on Suffering and Hope

The longer I study, the more aware I become of false gospels. Among them the kinds that promise easy things and smooth sailing through life and are abandoned at the first sign of difficulty or pain on the road to glory. Today’s text provides another jolt to such expectations, even within another highly promising text. Romans 5:1-11:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

I don’t know about any of my readers, but there are times I feel a need to repent of my desire for an easy life. It’s not as though I’ve had one to this point, though my hardships could be considered light when measured against those of countless other people who have named Christ as Lord. But the fact remains that I have spent more time lamenting the hardships than I have applying myself to the lessons they have to offer about faith, which in turn limits the extent to which hope dominates my life.

There is a difference, an important one at that, between rejoicing in our sufferings and rejoicing for our sufferings. The former is the way of godly response to the inevitable experiences of brokenness in this world; the latter is a way of self-pity and dwelling in the negative, a sort of self-absorption that becomes burdensome to those around us, who must hear about our ills in order to recognize the heroic nature of our journey. The former looks ahead; the latter holds to the present as though it is our suffering that will justify us. When we affirm that it is only by faith in what Christ has done that we are justified, that option is not open to us.

Knowing that one stands in grace and nothing else is what Paul proclaims as the way to hope fulfilled. Not the keeping of the law, but the believing of God; not the amount of hardship we overcome, but the faithful expectation that God will deliver us when it counts. How this contrasts with versions of Christian proclamation that make it sound as though all of our difficulties will be over the moment we “accept Jesus” and move on toward heaven! People are then left to wonder why God allows unpleasant things to happen, sometimes abandoning faith entirely, but more often attempting to hide the doubts under a cloak of religious observance. Since God can’t be trusted to protect the person from trouble, how can we entrust our decisions and ways to his guidance? Small wonder that there is little rejoicing in such a life.

I have focused thoughts on vv. 3-5 of the printed passage. Perhaps there are other reasons or observations you might have as to why the joy which should come from the truth conveyed does not characterize Christian life to a greater extent. Please share any that occur to you as you read the full text.

I Believe Even Though . . .

As we continue the series of Lenten reflections, we come to a passage of great hope and promise for everyone. But I noticed a caveat in this passage which is easily passed over. Romans 4:13-25:

13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

So what’s the caveat? Having the faith of Abraham is all we need, right? Oh, but how rare it is that we find ourselves in possession of that kind of faith, at least to the extent Abraham held it. I suppose that’s one of the reasons he is cited as the “father” of those who have faith in the promise of God. This is a man who believed even thoughthere were a host of rational reasons in favor of unbelief and few on the side of credulity.

Let’s face it. Most of us have a hard time holding faith at some point or other in the course of life. Every rational instinct in our mind argues against the probability that following God in spite of and in the face of daunting odds will turn out well for us. It happens in business decisions, it happens in career moves, it occurs in the manner in which we conduct our financial affairs and purchasing decisions, in the way we raise our families. There really is a way that seems right. And now and then it will be a way contrary to the one God asks us to walk.

There is some consolation in knowing that even Abraham eventually faltered in his confidence in God’s ability or intention. And God did not abandon the original promise. But oh, what a mess ensued from the sidetrack taken! If the story of Ishmael and Isaac does not deter us from thinking that God will ultimately get what He wants even while we unfaithfully choose what we want, nothing will. And many of us have stories we’d rather not tell in this regard. Yet the final word for today is faith in God’s promise. As Paul will later put it, He is faithful, even when we are faithless. Thanks be to God!

Identity Crisis?

The Seventeenth Day of Lent. We encounter in today’s reading the question which has occupied minds and inaugurated arguments since the time Jesus walked the roads of Palestine: is it possible that this is more than a man we are encountering? John 7:25-31:

25 Some of the people of Jerusalem therefore said, “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill? 26 And here he is, speaking openly, and they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Christ? 27 But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from.” 28 So Jesus proclaimed, as he taught in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I come from? But I have not come of my own accord. He who sent me is true, and him you do not know. 29 I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me.” 30 So they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. 31 Yet many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?

It is doubtful that there is any more challenging a thought than to believe that a man is also God–not a spark of the divine, not a replica or approximation, nor merely the closest thing to a divine being that humanity could produce, but truly God, the visible image of the invisible God, in whom all the fullness of deity dwells. So much hinges on this belief that the early church leaders took several looks at it over the course of the first four and one half centuries, making certain to get it right. Contrary to the notion popularized by Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, the doctrine of the two natures in one person was not the result of political force, but the unavoidable conclusion of a reality experienced by great numbers of believers and inexplicable except by this premise. And the premise itself is the only conclusion consistent with the scriptural record taken in its entirety.

It is easy for us to denigrate the people of Jesus’ time for their reluctance to accept the “obvious” identity of Jesus. It is hard to imagine that anyone would ever find it easy. So it was in the beginning, so it is in our own time as well; if there is a god at all, it certainly isn’t conceivable that we could find him in human form. We are tempted to downplay the doctrine for the sake of being acceptable; yet we give away more than we might expect when we do so. A person less than God does not know any more about God than can be learned by being in this world, and therefore cannot truly reveal him. I suspect that is the meaning of our Lord’s statement concerning where he comes from–beyond Nazareth, that is.

Of all the possible implications of this truth about Christ, one that has occupied y thinking for some time has been that when we see Jesus in the Gospel accounts, we see God. What that means is that being like him, imitating him, putting on godliness–whatever phrase best expresses our calling as Christians, we are not dealing with an esoteric command or unimaginable goal. We see how he handles opposition, how he handles those who haven’t got a clue or the time to find one in front of their faces. It’s never with an anger born of a need to convince oneself; it’s with the calm confidence in the one who sent him that speaks for itself when challenged.

As indicated, I believe there are multiple implications of the truth of who Jesus is. I’d welcome your insights into some of those.

Goodness, Gracious

The focus of postings for Lent has been on ideas we might hold that should be open to examination. The traditional period of repentance is specifically calling for a repentance of thoughts and attitudes more than of actions and habits, though of course the latter flow out of the former. Today the text, though familiar to many, might challenge an often heard idea. Romans 3:21-31 (ESV):

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

How many times have you heard a phrase similar to this: “God cannot look upon sin”? Are we serious? God cannot look at the world without looking at sin. And we know He looks at the world! The apostle Paul has spent the first two and one half chapters declaring the fact that all the world, whether the small portion of it that had access to His revealed Law or the vast majority that had the outline of the moral law written on the heart, has failed to live uprightly. The oft-cited v. 23 is simply a summary of all that has gone before.

But that famous verse is not even the complete sentence; it is only the prelude to a major shift in what he is talking about, moving from the self-evident fact that all have sinned to the whole point of his preaching and teaching, which is the second and major part of the sentence. Not only have “all” sinned, but they are justified graciously through what Jesus has done in his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. The argument, Paul’s major theological treatise, at this very point turns toward faith in what God has done.

Why do I think that examining our thinking is important here? Just a couple of suggestions which cannot be fleshed out here, but which I invite you to react to in comments. First, do we limit God’s grace by painting the picture of a God, quite angry at that, who cannot look upon sin? Anger comes first, grace seems to come begrudgingly in this picture. Second, do we recognize the phrase (v.25) that God “passed over” so very many sins in the past? And do we interpret that as saying all such passing over has ended? Finally (final for this post only, of course), do we exude an attitude more consistent with merited favor than with abundant, irrational grace in our following of Christ? Just asking.

What’s Wrong with the World?

When we assess the state of the world and the people who dwell in it we are often confounded by what we see. This is not a specifically Christian response. If one were to go out into a public place and ask random people, “What’s wrong with the world?” few would contest the premise that there is something amiss in life as we encounter it. The text for the Fifteenth Day of Lent is Romans 3:5-18 (going back to 2:25 as a starting point could be helpful):

5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

There are several common answers to the question of why the world isn’t the way it ought to be–lack of education, poverty, injustice, greed, lack of love, the necessity of a balanced universe in which both good and evil must exist in order to distinguish between the two, etc. All of these are valid observations, but they strike as symptoms more than they do as causes of the problem. And in virtually every case there is a subtle implication that the root of the problem lies outside oneself. There is a problem, that is to say, and I have to put up with the results, in spite of having done nothing to bring it about. The real problem is outside of me.

The text, to this point, has outlined an argument that deliberately implicates everyone in the problem, regardless of what group they belong to. The argument culminates in a series of Old Testament citations which describe our common human condition. It is for this reason, as noted in the previous post, that honest Christians should be about the business of self-reformation rather than societal condemnation. Rather than flaunting their forgiven status, they should be focusing on their transformation into the image of Christ–the one who provided the forgiveness in the first place.

I am reminded of the response given decades ago by G. K. Chesterton to a London Times question in the public comment section of the paper, which asked people to weigh in on exactly the same question we began with today. Chesterton’s response? “Dear Sirs, In response to your question of what is wrong with the world: I am.” As we continue in a period of repentance, let us reflect on the specific ways in which we might continue to participate in the sin which is the truth about the world’s problems. And then let us seek the assistance of one another in working out our salvation from those sins, even in fear and trembling. Many Christians have come a long way by the grace of God; most of us have learned only how far we have yet to go.

Repenting of Smugness?

Today’s thought continues the one from yesterday concerning judgment. Paul seems not to relent in making his readers rethink whatever standard of judgment they may have been working with. The renewal of our own minds may require the same admonition. Romans 2:12-24, the text for the Fourteenth Day of Lent:

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

In John Wesley’s day (18th century) there must have been Christian sects who saw it their duty to point out all the short-comings of others, especially those of the national church. He insisted that his Methodists were of a different mind: “We set out to criticize ourselves, not others.” The point of the movement he was heading was to have believers examine their own lives, in the company of their peers, so as to truly exhibit the new life they had found in response to the gospel of Christ.

I am reminded of this essential Wesleyan principle when looking at today’s passage from Romans, which demonstrates what inevitably happens when it is neglected. Believers all too easily end up engaged in the same sinful patterns of life as their unbelieving neighbors. And the name of God is, as Paul put it, blasphemed because of us. Whatever the term blasphemy actually means (it continues to be debated), it isn’t good. And it continues.

There is a certain smugness that emanates from some conservative Christians about their status among “the saved.” I think of this when I see bumper stickers such as the one that says, “I’m not perfect; just forgiven.” While the intent may be perfectly innocent and perhaps even a nod toward humility, it is too easily read as being dismissive of behaviors in our own ranks which we find condemnable in others outside the faith. The only difference, in other words, is that we our forgiven of our continuing lust, envy, anger, and adultery while others are not. Paul and Wesley thought there to be something wrong with this picture–not because the premise of forgiveness is wrong, but because the failure of reformation of character has created an impression of a smug attitude of superiority toward others, many of whom may actually be more upright in conduct than the believers themselves.

Today let us reflect on how others outside the faith might hear our pronouncements relative to how they see our lives.