We Have It Backwards!

original photo credit: RBerteig via photopin cc
original photo credit: RBerteig via photopin cc

I am in the process of writing and publishing a book, Champions in the Wilderness, which is an adventure in and of itself. Communicating through the written word can be challenging–especially when attempting to convey a particular emphasis. If I write, for example, “Bill had a wallet full of cash,” the reader might be left wondering what point I was trying to get across. Would I be referring to Bill sitting on the curb sulking because of money he no longer has, or to a huge smile on Bill’s face because his wallet is bulging to the seams with an overabundance of greenbacks? Or perhaps, Bill is full of anxiety as he walks through an unsafe part of the city with a wallet full of money.

photo credit: David Salafia via photopin cc
photo credit: David Salafia via photopin cc

In such a case, one lone sentence can never suffice to provide a proper understanding of the circumstances. A writer’s intent must be established through the surrounding context. Taking this approach to understanding the Bible is all the more important—life and death issues are involved! Gross misunderstandings of the Christian faith abound in our world because of a failure to properly deal with issues of emphasis and context.

In visiting the topic of God’s grace over the past few blogs, I have come to the conclusion that the Western church has a reversed understanding of grace.

Read through the New Testament and you will find more than one application of grace. Grace as God’s unmerited favor is certainly emphasized by the Apostle Paul, but not nearly to the same extent as by the Western church. It’s not that this dimension of grace is unimportant to Paul, but through the entire context of his writings we find much more emphasis on the transformational nature of grace—something that I have highlighted through my recent posts.

photo credit: JessicaPreskitt via CreationSwap
photo credit: JessicaPreskitt via CreationSwap

For decades, if not centuries, the transformational aspect of grace has been virtually ignored. We have it backwards and the cumulative result of this reversal in emphasis is a current generation of passive, rather than active, people who profess a deep devotion to God. This error has been painfully destructive to individual lives, to the nuclear family, to the church as a whole, and even to the world in which we dwell.

I’ll close this blog series by highlighting an important reminder from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

Just as in the entire world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, so it has also been bearing fruit and growing among you from the first day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth. Colossians 1:6 (NET)

If our understanding of the Christian gospel does not produce favorable changes in the lives of professing Christians, then something is grossly out of whack. God’s grace, when appropriately applied, will transform even the vilest of human hearts.  Let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking otherwise!

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Love that Never Dies

original photo credit: Yale Law Library via photopin cc
original photo credit: Yale Law Library via photopin cc

Critics of the modern Christianity often complain that our modern Bibles lose something in meaning due the difficulties of language translation. In part, they are correct—although I have found that digging deeper into the original languages is common practice for most of the scholars and pastors who approach Bible interpretation with a great deal of care and humility.

There is one particular Hebrew word, extensively used throughout the Old Testament, that is rich with meaning but does not translate well into English. The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains (DBL Hebrew) defines the Hebrew word hesed (also spelled chesed) as:

loyal love, unfailing kindness, devotion, i.e., a love or affection that is steadfast based on a prior relationship [1]

One of the best known uses of this ancient word can be found in the sixth and final verse of the much loved twenty-third Psalm:

photo credit: Waiting For The Word via photopin cc
photo credit: Waiting For The Word via photopin cc

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever. (NKJV)

The word translated as “mercy” here is actually hesed. Various versions of the Bible also translate hesed as “love” (NIV), faithful love” (HCSB), “unfailing love” (NLT), and “lovingkindness” (NASB). As you can see, limitations in the English language make it difficult for us to get a full understanding of the word’s intended meaning.

Adding yet another layer of significance to Psalms 23:6 is the Hebrew word for “follow” (yirdpuni), which, according to the DBL Hebrew can be translated to mean chase, pursue, and even hound.[2] Do you see it? God’s faithful, undying love will pursue His children all of the days of their lives! God loves everyone ever born, but His hesed is now only fully expressed to those who have entered into a New Covenant relationship with Him through faith in Jesus Christ. What an amazing privilege it is for us to be the apple of God’s eye!

photo credit: Candida.Performa via photopin cc
photo credit: Candida.Performa via photopin cc

Plumbing the depths of God’s undying love for His children, however, is not my primary purpose for addressing this concept. The nature of New Covenant Christianity merits a paradigm shift from following lists of rules (in order to gain God’s acceptance) to returning God’s faithful love with a faithful love of our own. Just as two married people are to be faithfully devoted to one another for all of their days, so, too, God’s children are to practically live out their love for their Lord and Savior.

There is nothing nebulous about genuine love. God’s grace both frees us and compels us to live in a manner which is very different from the cultural mindsets that constantly seek to define us. The Christian life is in no way defined by adherence to the Mosaic Law, but by a faithful covenant love that finds its expression in three specific areas as identified by three Greek words for love –agape, philia, and eros—that were used in the writing of the New Testament.

Over the next several posts, we’ll use this foundation to build a framework by which we can see how New Covenant love is to govern the manner in which we live out our Christian faith. I know I’ve gone a tad technical with this post, but this stuff is too good (and important) to ignore!


[1] Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[2] Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

The Grace Dilemma

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The New Covenant is amazing! We are free from the requirements of the Old Testament Law and now have a profound measure of freedom under God’s paradigm of grace. I have, however, made it clear over my last several posts that grace is not a license to live in any manner imaginable, and that our Savior fully expects us to die to our old sinful natures.

The connecting point between freedom and obedience creates a huge point of confusion for many of us. If we are no longer under law because of grace, and if grace empowers us to a new lifestyle, how do we know exactly what’s acceptable to God and what isn’t? On the surface, it all feels very nebulous, but if we dig a little deeper, we can find a basic New Covenant framework to help guide our actions. We begin by examining God’s primary expectations under the New Covenant:

 Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.  If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. John 15:9-10 (NASB)

Photo by Sam Hakes
Photo by Sam Hakes

In a previous post, I laid out the two predominant commands of New Testament Christianity: faith and love. For the purpose of our current context, we’ll focus primarily on the Bible’s central command—to love God with all that we have and to love those around us (Matthew 22:34-40).

Love, according to the Scriptures, is so much more than our culture’s definition of love. How often do we see Hollywood celebrities getting married because they are deeply in love, only to hear of them filing for divorce a couple of years later?

I can’t help but contrast their example with that of my late neighbors, John and Roseann Palilla. As they aged well beyond the age of retirement, John and Rosanne continued to set a powerful example of faithful love, both as parents and as spouses. Sadly, Rosanne developed Parkinson’s disease, and although her mind remained sharp, her physical issues created a huge burden for both her and John. For as long as he was physically able, John faithfully cared for his frail wife’s every need—even to the point of exhausting himself. Eventually, they had to enter a personal care home where they lived together until death came knocking.

Love, in its very essence, is both free and constrained. John Palilla, for example, freely chose to marry Rosanne, but the strength of that love constrained him to be a one woman man—and a faithful one at that.

Palilla love, as opposed to Hollywood love, would undoubtedly be closer to heaven’s standard. Faithful, sacrificial, selfless love, according to the Scriptures is to be the driving force that governs our decision making processes. Thus, the one law that defines New Testament living is the law of love (Romans 13:8-10), which James also calls the law of liberty (James 1:25) and the royal law (James 2:8).

Dilemma
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Understanding these things doesn’t answer all of our questions, but it does point us in the right direction. In my next post, we’ll take a brief look at what I like to call covenant love and then we’ll address three specific applications that will help us to understand that our dilemma isn’t as much about confusion over what’s right and wrong as it is about a struggle between loving others and selfishly pursuing what we want.

What Does Obedience Have to Do with Faith?

I think I did a decent job of blasting theological liberals with my last post regarding the integrity of the Scriptures. There are times, however, when I find it necessary to be an equal opportunity offender; this week I will take a loving shot at some of those in the evangelical camp.

Eternal Fire insurance
Created by Sam Hakes

“What” I might ask, “was the apostle Paul’s primary mission in life?” The expected evangelical answer would be, “to help populate heaven by seeing lost souls saved.” It all sounds very noble—and very spiritual—but that isn’t quite what the Bible teaches. By no means am I saying that saving souls is unimportant. The Bible itself tells us that all of heaven rejoices when a person’s name is added to the Book of Life. But notice what Paul wrote in the introduction of his letter to the Roman believers:

. . . Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake. . . .  Romans 1:4b-5 (NASB)

Paul was stating that the primary purpose of both grace and apostolic ministry is to “bring about the obedience of faith.” This is no fluke as Paul uses the same terminology at the end of his letter (verse 26):

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen. Romans 16:25-27 (NASB)

Paul's Letter to the RomansDo you see it? Paul’s letter to the Romans—the premiere book of the Bible that illuminates our understanding of the gospel—begins and ends with an emphasis on the “obedience of faith.” Salvation isn’t just about accepting Jesus so that we can join a heavenly chorus of believers. Genuine faith is revealed by very practical obedience to God’s commands.

Once again, we find ourselves exploring a deeper understanding of grace. If the grace of God is unmerited favor and nothing more, then we are excused to live as we please as long as we have made some type of decision for Christ. But if grace is something more–if grace enables as well as favors–then it makes perfect sense that a growing faith would lead to increasingly favorable life changes. It’s not about measuring up to some type of religious standard, but rather living by a new and different paradigm.

The Great Commission, in many evangelical circles, has been minimized to mean something very different than what Christ commanded His disciples.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NASB)

Our call, as recorded by Matthew, is to “make disciples” of Jesus. This means that our salvation message must go beyond God’s willingness to forgive our sins. We speak not merely of a salvation prayer, or of a decision for Christ, but of a changed lifestyle which faith and grace will bring about. Any gospel that fails to call for a total surrender of one’s life to Christ is, at best, only an incomplete version of the genuine article.

I believe we do a tremendous disservice to people when we undermine the credibility of the Scriptures with liberal thinking, but I am also convinced that evangelicals make a huge mistake when they simply regurgitate concepts that they’ve been taught by their religious leaders. It doesn’t take a PhD to understand the Bible but it does take effort to seek God’s wisdom for a clearer comprehension of Biblical truth.

Return of Christ
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I know that most evangelicals are well-intentioned but so are most liberals. In light of Galatians 1:6-10, if there is one thing that requires extraordinary attention on our part, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ!

The Church of Whatever We Want Jesus to Be

Paul's Letter
Valentin de Boulogne – Public Domain

If ever there was a person who was an authority of the Christian gospel, it was the Apostle Paul. Author of one-third of our New Testament, Paul penned letters to the churches in Rome and Galatia, both of which have become premiere sources for our understanding of the gospel.

Notice how Paul begins his letter to the Romans:

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…. Romans 1:1 (NASB)

This verse provides a point of convergence for all Christians. Would any of us dispute Paul’s calling—or his authority for that matter? We all might also agree that the gospel (good news) is integral to the Christian faith. Even those who do not consider themselves to be evangelicals still revere the centrality of the gospel.

Christ's Resurrection
Noel Coypel – Public Domain

Professing Christians begin to diverge when it comes to the heart and purpose of the gospel. Jesus came to earth as God incarnate—that is God in the flesh, in human form. The Son of God walked amongst us as the Son of Man. After fulfilling a supernatural ministry on earth, Jesus suffered a torturous death on a wooden cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all men and women. But death could not hold the Son of God! On the third day following, Jesus rose in power from the grave, never to die again.

Sadly, there are some professing Christians who would disagree with this Biblically-based representation of the good news of Jesus Christ. They might say, “Humans aren’t all that bad and are able to please God by being good people and doing nice things—like helping little old ladies across the street.” They might say, “Sure, Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he never believed himself to be God. A few misguided souls simply misunderstood his teachings.” Further still, they might say, “Jesus never performed any actual miracles and we all know the resurrection to be scientifically impossible.” “Of course, these things are recorded in the Bible, but the book is more of a teaching tool intended to help modify human behavior than it is the inspired word of God,” they might say.

It is not my goal to be rude, but I can’t, for the life of me, understand how such a perspective can be called “Christian” when it attempts to strike a dagger in the heart of the Christian faith. If we remove the reality of Christ’s miracles and His subsequent resurrection, we lose the power to transform human lives. Christianity, then, becomes more of a humanistic self-improvement project than the radical, life-changing movement it was intended to be.

I understand that some people find certain tenets of the Christian faith to be repulsive. Seriously, how many of us relish the thought of needing a Savior to remind us that we are thoroughly inadequate in heaven’s eyes? The picture of a bloody sacrifice does little to make me feel warm and fuzzy. And, of course, dying to my own selfish desires has never been at the top of my bucket list!

I disagree with the theology of Unitarian Universalists but I do respect them for their honesty; they don’t claim to be Christian. On the other hand, I really struggle with those who profess Christianity but deny the substance thereof. It is one thing to disagree about the meaning of Scripture. It’s a totally different issue to deny its authority.

Church of WhateverWe live in a world in which the title “Christian” means just about everything; therefore, it means nothing. What makes this state especially sad are the precious human lives adversely affected by such confusion. Would we, perhaps, be better to make a distinction between those who embrace the supremacy and authority of Christ, and those who would like to reinterpret the Bible according to their own desires? We could call one group the church of Jesus Christ and the other the church of whatever we want Jesus to be.

I realize that the abrasive tone of this post breaks from my usual pattern but I believe there are times when we sacrifice honesty for the sake of nicety. If you would like to make your own religion, have at it! Enjoy yourself! Do it up right! Create whatever makes you feel good. But let’s not forget that Jesus Christ is the head of His church and that He will form and shape her according to His desires—not ours.

How Do You Picture Jesus?

CompositeJesus
Taken from Wikapedia – Public Domain

Have you ever wondered what Jesus looked like? I think that we safely can say that he wasn’t pale and sickly-looking the way that many of the Renaissance painters made Him to be. Jesus would, in fact, have had somewhat dark skin. If He was of average height for His day—and we have no reason to believe that He wasn’t—Jesus most likely stood just over five feet tall. And though not a physical giant, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus had a fairly muscular build.

History calls Him a carpenter, but the actual Greek word is téktōn, which can be translated as craftsman or builder. Being that wood was not especially plentiful in the Judean region, He probably made yokes, plows, and tools; or He worked as a stone mason. Justin Martyr, a first century church father, said it was the former, so Christ’s description as a carpenter has stuck. Either way, as a craftsman—someone who worked with His hands and spent time around other builders—Jesus would not have been a physical wimp, regardless of how He is often portrayed.

The physical picture we have of Jesus doesn’t really matter all that much, but how we view His personality means a great deal. It is completely inaccurate to envision the Son of Man as a timid, somewhat weak-willed guy who just walked around forgiving everybody regardless of what they said and did.

Through the Scriptures, we sometimes see an angry Jesus; He turned over the tables of the money changers and blasted the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Jesus was not hesitant to express His displeasure—and even His wrath—but His anger was never self-centered. The Son of God hated injustice with a passion.

photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc
photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc

As a craftsman, Jesus was also accustomed to beginning with raw materials in an effort to produce a finished product. While He may have enjoyed simply working with His hands, there was always an end-goal in mind. A craftsman never looks with complete pleasure upon rough lumber until He can envision a finished product. A master craftsman never fears working with flawed materials; in spite of the difficulties, these materials make some of the most beautiful products. There is a problem, however, if the raw materials always remain raw—if they never progress toward their final goal.

photo credit: Simon Blackley via photopin cc
photo credit: Simon Blackley via photopin cc

Ephesians 2:10 (AMP) tells us that “We are God’s [own] handiwork (His workmanship), recreated in Christ Jesus, [born anew] that we may do those good works which God predestined (planned beforehand) for us [taking paths which He prepared ahead of time], that we should walk in them [living the good life which He prearranged and made ready for us to live].”

I honestly don’t know how He looked physically, but I see in Jesus both the passion and wisdom of a master craftsman. Undoubtedly, He will accept us as we are, but He will never be content to allow us to remain in our current states. His goal is to take our flawed raw materials and produce a masterpiece of fruitful service. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the King of kings and Lord of lords would ever be content with anything less.

Have You Seen God?

photo credit: Micah Boy via photopin cc
photo credit: Micah Boy via photopin cc

I’ve seen sunshine, rain, and snow, but in all my years I have never seen the wind. While I was hiking through the woods recently, a huge gust of wind picked up bunches of dry leaves along the trail and threw them swirling into the air. I’ve felt the wind and I’ve seen its influence; its presence is very real but the wind itself remains invisible.

None of us have ever seen God. Some would say that He does not exist. As with the wind, however, we can feel the presence of the invisible God and see various indicators that He is near.

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photo credit: SJU Undergraduate Admissions via photopin cc

The greatest evidence of God’s existence is that transformation that takes place in the lives of those whom He touches. The selfish become generous; the arrogant, humble; the insecure, confident; the hopeless, full of anticipation. When the Creator of the Universe touches a person’s life, those around can’t help but notice.

We dare not forget, however, that the fruit seen in the life of a professing Christian presents a two-sided coin. While a transformed life will attract others to God, an existence mired in the sins of the flesh will have the opposite effect—genuine seekers will be driven to unhealthy, and even dangerous, spiritual paths.

Hardly a week goes by when I don’t see or hear of someone being alienated from God’s love because a professing Christian, by virtue of ungodly behavior, called God’s goodness into question. Sometimes sharing my faith involves doing damage control more than it does speaking of the God’s goodness.

photo credit: Ryk Neethling via photopin cc
photo credit: Ryk Neethling via photopin cc

Grace is transformational, empowering us to rise above the corruption of this world to new heights in Christ. And how do we know when we are on the right track? The Bible provides us with guideposts along the way. By looking at lists of good and bad behavior found within the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:16-24, etc.), we can get a general sense of what many of those around us already know—whether we are living according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. I’m sure that we’d all like to think that we are living according the Holy Spirit’s ways but the human heart is deceptive; we need the objectivity that the Scriptures provide.

We each have our struggles against sin and anyone can go through a bad stretch, but over the course of time, a person’s lifestyle should begin to align with his or her profession of faith. A transformed life, brought about by His life-giving grace, provides irrefutable evidence of God’s good presence at work in this world!