A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 3

I want to pick up on something I said in the last post and give it the emphasis it deserves, and it’s my simple observation that none of us know what we are wrong about. Think about it! If we knew we were wrong about something then we would presumably make correction and not be wrong any more. A simple principle, for sure, but greatly overlooked and misunderstood! And greatly overlooked and misunderstood by Christians too!

Because flights don’t always get me where my car is there are times when I have to rent one, and because rentals are nearly-new they tend to have all the bells and whistles which I only know exist because of renting them. Indeed, after a ten hour drive in a real beauty last year I’d just about figured out by the time we arrived at the airport to fly home that I could have probably driven the whole distance just talking to it via the onboard computer. Man, there wasn’t much that thing couldn’t do pretty much completely automatically. On the last really cool car I rented I noticed that the side-view mirrors had a little symbol in the corner that would regularly light up, but I couldn’t for the life of me work out why they would or why they were there. Belinda eventually figured out though that the flashing symbols were there to alert me when any vehicle alongside but to the rear was in my blindspot. And there you have it! Just as with driving, we all have blindspots in our lives! And the thing about blindspots is that you don’t, by very definition, know what’s in them! And that means that we don’t know what we are wrong about, and that we therefore need to be open to correction from others, such correction being the equivalent of those little symbols lighting up on the side view mirror of my rental car.

One of the greatest biblical virtues is that of humility, and one of the ways in which genuine humility is revealed is through an open mind to the fact that we could be wrong about absolutely anything. As we saw last time, this doesn’t prevent us from being definite regarding to our best and honest biblical understanding of various matters, but it does preserve us from the kind of closed-minded dogmatism that is more to do with needing to be seen to be right about something (self-righteousness, in fact), rather than simply establishing from scripture whether we actually are right or not.

And it seems to me that there are two main ways in which we avoid facing up to things about which we are wrong, but about which we are determined to keep believing that we are right. The first is to simply avoid anything that might address, or present challenge to, whatever the thing in question might be. The tactic, so to speak, of denial plus avoidance! We just don’t talk about whatever it might be, or address it in any way. We keep it ‘off the table’ and avoid talking about it with anyone who might present a threat or challenge to us regarding it. This is why, for example, so many aspects of what the Bible teaches are quite intentionally never referred to, being studiously ignored, by Christian leaders and teachers and those who follow them.

The second way to avoid having to face up to the fact that we might be wrong about something is to become so entrenched in our convictions, biblical or otherwise, that instead of genuine discussion with others we are simply concerned to ‘win the argument’ and not even properly listen to any contrary thinking or ideas. Our concern should rather be, “What saith the scriptures?” with an accompanying attitude of genuinely testing ourselves to see if we are truly seeking to then conform our thinking and lives to what they say.

So this isn’t just about belief and doctrine. It’s about how  we actually live day to day as husbands and wives, as parents and children, as employers or employees and as neighbours to those who live in our street. It’s about how honest we are being regarding our sin and failure, and about then repenting of that sin and failure and putting things right both with the Lord and any others whom our sin has affected. As sinners our default state, our knee-jerk reaction, our instinctive and instant response to any revealed consequences of our own wrongdoing, is to try to deny the reality of the situation and to excuse and justify ourselves regarding it, so as to not only deny our sin but to shift the blame onto others. Humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God, as scripture commands us to do, is therefore the way in which we initiate, and continue, the ongoing process of reversing this.

In the Garden of Eden, as soon as sin entered the human domain, Eve blamed the serpent, and Adam blamed Eve and then the Lord. Humility, however, embraces the simple understanding that my sin is my fault and not yours, and that I am the only one who can repent of it and make restitution in the Lord for it. Humility also embraces the simple fact that 1) We are wrong about an awful lot of things which we aren’t even aware of yet, and 2) Without the help and correction of others we will never see much of what that wrongness actually is.

As I maintained in the previous couple of posts, we are indeed free to always think we are right, but not to ever think that we are always right! And now we must add this: When sin has disrupted my relationship with others in any way it might be entirely their fault and not mine. It might also be a case that both they and I have contributed wrongdoing to the situation. Or it might be that the situation is entirely my own wrongdoing! But irrespective of which of these three possibilities it is, the one thing I must never do is to automatically give myself the benefit of the doubt and to simply assume that the odds are that I am right, and that the wrongdoing is entirely someone else’s.

The Lord’s humility reveals itself by His willingness to be in a lowlier position than the one of which He is worthy. For ourselves, however, humility must acknowledge that we are not actually worthy of anything at all, and that also, unlike the Lord, we have ongoing wrong-thinking and wrongdoing that we need to both admit to and put right.

This is a big part of why even so many Christians who are aware of what scripture teaches regarding church life, and who have actual opportunity to avail themselves of it, nevertheless decide to either remain in unbiblical churches or just become churchless. Both options, however, avoid  meaningful personal accountability! The first because unbiblical churches are impersonal, and the latter because it excludes even the most basic commitment to anyone or anything, and even avoids scriptures command that we regularly gather together with other believers for mutual edification and spiritual growth. The former is to hide in a crowd, whilst the latter is to just avoid others completely! In strong contrast to both scripture teaches that we should embrace true life-sharing fellowship with others in which we become truly open and known.

Look, no-one enjoys being corrected! Or at least, I don’t! I really, really do understand that! Given the choice between watching some Star Trek or having someone correct me for something, guess which one I’d go for! Indeed, I’d rather watch chick-flics, which I truly can’t stand! But hey, even watching chick-flics beats being corrected by someone, eh? But like so many things in life correction isn’t meant to be enjoyable, it’s meant to be part of our walk with the Lord so as to sanctify us and conform us ever more into His likeness and character!

 

 

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A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 2

The second phrase I want to look at is one I picked up from Americans. I think it’s brilliant, but I have found that there are English folk who have a problem getting their heads round. It’s this: I always think I’m right, but I don’t think I’m always right! So let’s take this apart and find the sparkling gems of important biblical principles so succinctly and brilliantly stated by it.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which Christians can fall concerning how they apprehend the truths of scripture. One is to be so un-definite and wishy-washy that it’s difficult to know quite what they believe about anything. Many believers are so ‘shades of grey’ through fear of being thought of as being too black and white, so woolly- and double-minded in their desire to avoid ever being thought of as being overly dogmatic, they end up virtually conviction-less and pretty much useless as far as serving the Lord goes. Evangellyfish with no backbone! In his letter James states that a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways, and this is one of the major reasons why so many Christians are so hopelessly compromised and cowardly in their discipleship and witness to the surrounding culture. Because they are not clear on even the basics of the faith, they just wobble all over the place having little to saying just keeping their heads down and to avoid controversy.

The opposite error, however, is when believers hold understandings and convictions regarding the teaching of scripture which, once embraced, become fixed and unalterable in their thinking. They then deem their doctrinal positions to not even be open for discussion, let alone possible re-examination and re-assessment in the light of increased scriptural awareness and knowledge. And of course there is a spectrum in-between these two extremes which, given that none of us are ever in perfect balance, each of us is somewhere along at any given time. It is, after all, quite possible to have intractable convictions regarding those bits of the Bible we take a liking to and especially agree with, whilst being conviction-less – indeed, probably just completely ignoring – those parts about which we might simply not be bothered. All this is error and imbalance, and we need to be doing everything we can to get it right. So let’s break our phrase down into it’s two constituent parts.

First, I always believe I’m right! Think about it! Why would we believe certain things, thereby acting and behaving in whatever way those beliefs demand, if we didn’t believe those things to be right? Definite biblical conviction is meant to be the very basis upon which we live! Jesus said, “They shall know the truth and the truth shall set them free.” So if I am living on any basis, in any area of my life, that is not a positive embracing of, and obedient response to, clear biblical conviction, then I am not, by definition, being faithful to the Lord and am living in bondage in such regard. If we claim to be disciples then the only thing that should matter to us is being in conscious obedience to scripture. Jesus also said, “If you love me you will obey my commands.”

This is obviously an ongoing process which progresses over time, but once we are saved our whole intent should be to be continually adjusting our thinking, and therefore our lives, in order so as to conform with our growing understanding of what the Bible teaches. Wherever we find ourselves at variance with it, whether in belief or action, then the evidence of discipleship, as opposed to us proving to just be carnal Christians, is that we duly repent. That is, that we change both our thinking and our behaviour accordingly.

There are obviously also going to be those things concerning which, at any one time, we are genuinely unclear on regarding what scripture teaches, the jury, so to speak, still being out, but even then we should still be continually seeking to understand more and more of its teaching in order to adjust ourselves and our lifestyles accordingly. We cannot truly follow the Lord and grow in Him without also growing in clear progressing biblical conviction regarding every area of life.

So yes, of course I always think I’m right. If I didn’t think I was right regarding whatever I believe, such being the basis for how I live, then what business do I have believing whatever it might be in the first place? James also states quite clearly in his letter that if a man knows what is right but doesn’t do it, then that to him is sin. Notwithstanding, as we have already seen, there will always be things we don’t yet understand from scripture (but of course one isn’t then claiming to be right regarding them), we are nevertheless meant to be crystal clear on the basics. Should such not be the case, then we should realise how important it is that we start putting that right as soon as possible.

Secondly, but I don’t believe I’m always right! This is crucial! The safeguard to always believing that we are right is the ongoing realisation that we should only believe anything at all should it be what scripture actually teaches. So we must now introduce another thought, and it is simply this: I don’t know what I’m wrong about! And neither do you! Think about it! If I thought I was wrong about something then I would, presumably, correct it, put it right and therefore not be wrong any more. Should we ever remain knowingly and wilfully wrong about something then that is obviously sinful and without excuse, but even when we truly are being as genuinely honest as we know how, it still remains the case that we are sinners who are naturally prone to deception, and who could therefore be wrong about absolutely anything, at any time, without realising it! And of course the answer to that is what the Bible teaches concerning humility, and about the importance of us being genuinely correctable and willing and open to having others show us where we are wrong. But of the course the important thing then is that any such correction must itself be demonstrably what scripture actually does teach! In order to properly correct someone it must be made absolutely clear to them from God’s Word that they are wrong, otherwise there is no basis to even think they are wrong. The only basis upon which to expect a believer to change their mind concerning honestly held biblical conviction is to demonstrate from scripture that the conviction in question is actually wrong.

This is one of the reasons why being in close and significant fellowship with others is vital, and why it is so important that we never expect anyone to accept anything we say or teach just because we say or teach it. Indeed, we should always encourage others to satisfy themselves whether or not anything that has been stated is consistent with God’s Word. As a Bible teacher I have always insisted that no-one accept anything I teach unless they are satisfied for themselves that it is what the Bible teaches. I would rather believers disagree with me because they have honestly searched out scripture for themselves than agree with me just because I said it, or because I merely sounded convincing when I did. Conversely, however, if someone does disagree with something they hear taught, then it is for them to demonstrate from scripture that one teaching it is wrong, as opposed to merely rejecting something just because they don’t like it, or because it doesn’t fit in with their own pre-conceived ideas or pet doctrines.

I have certainly become accustomed to being thought of as being fay too definite about various biblical issues which many Christians seem to want to remain obscure, and concerning which they consider it offensive to be dogmatic because they don’t want to have to be in obedience regarding them! But whether it’s what I teach in regards to church life, the differing roles of men and women in family and church life or the scandal of divorce and remarriage, I have always made it as clear as I know how that I welcome correction, whether concerning those issues or anything else. My position has always been this: Like anyone and everyone else, I have no idea what I am yet wrong about! Therefore, if anyone thinks they can see where I am wrong about something then please, please, please, feel free to show me! I honestly and truly don’t want to be wrong about anything, yet am nevertheless fully aware that I am wrong about things which I genuinely and honestly think I am right about! But here’s the condition! You must show me what you think I am wrong about from scripture, and you must do so fully aware that it might also turn out that it is you who is wrong concerning the matter, and not me after all! To just say someone is wrong about something without clearly demonstrating your biblical basis and authority for so doing is actually an example of monumental arrogance and presumption. Do you really expect others to accept that what you say is correct merely because you say it? The whole point is that, in regards to what we are here talking about, it doesn’t matter what you think, or what I think, or what anyone else thinks! The only thing that matters is, what saith the scriptures? Am I right or wrong about this, or the other? Are you right or wrong about this, that or the other? The only way to establish anything is such regard is for all concerned to turn to scripture with as honest and as open a mind as we know how!

So yes, I always believe I’m right, but I don’t believe I’m always right! And that should be the deal for every believer. Every Christian should be able to honestly say such of themselves. It simply boils down to this: We must be definite about, and therefore faithful to, our biblical convictions, yet whilst being genuinely humble in our acknowledgement of our, as yet, unrealised and unacknowledged ignorance and error!

A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 1

It has been well noted that England and America are two nations separated by a common language, and as an Englishman who spends much time there I can confirm that this is indeed the case. But although English is my first language I’ve managed to pick up some Americanese and can occasionally bridge the gap!

There are a couple of turns of phrase which I use quite often that seem to cause confusion in both countries, but for completely different reasons and depending which side of the Atlantic I happen to be when I use them. One is a phrase very commonly used in England, which oft-times raises eyebrows amongst American believers, and the other is a phrase I picked up from American believers which causes a bit of confusion in the Motherland. So in an attempt to undo the confusion I continue to cause on both sides of the Atlantic, let me define these terms (hopefully) to the satisfaction of both my American and English brothers and sisters. I will deal with one today, and the other in the morning.

The first phrase, which I have used since childhood, and which I have never known an Englishman to misunderstand, is the simple phrase, ‘Agree to differ.” And this comes up because I often teach that one of the most important things Christians need to learn to do is to master is the art of being able to agree to differ. However, what Americans seem to hear when I say that is that is the suggestion that Christians should just avoid addressing difficult issues and not try to come to one mind, so as to reach agreement in order to maintain the unity of our faith. They perceive me to mean that we ought to accept a kind of lowest-common-denominator-type stance on things, pretty much just ignoring what scripture teaches regarding them thus leaving the tough issues undefined, ambiguous and un-dealt with so as to keep the peace. Such would, they say – and quite rightly too – be to not take what the New Testament teaches about striving to be of one mind very seriously. So let me clarify what I mean by saying that believers need to learn how to agree to differ.

I think it is is probably the case that there aren’t two followers of Jesus alive on the planet at any one time who would agree with each other about everything. Indeed, how many even godly husbands and wives tick the same boxes about absolutely everything? It is therefore vital that we understand that what holds us together in fellowship is obedience and faithfulness to the Lord, and not the need for comprehensive or complete agreement on what that necessarily looks like in every circumstance. Further, because everyone is at a different place in their discipleship, it is simply ridiculous to assume that every Christian will share the same outlook and understanding regarding everything, even though we are all reading the same Bible.

This is not, of course, to say that there are no red-lines. But it is to say that a lot of Christians seem to have so many red-lines it’s just crazy. I have known believers to fall out and break fellowship with each other over such secondary matters as differing understandings of the relationship between election/predestination and free-will, whether it’s alright to read Harry Potter books or not (and even the writings of C S Lewis), the timing of the Rapture and even over which political party o one votes for. And such fallings out and divisions between Christians, which scripture condemns as being actually carnal and sinful, occur precisely when we don’t properly understand what it means to be able to simply agree to differ.

I am not implying that such differences shouldn’t ever be pursued to see if things might be resolved and agreement reached, but it is simply the case that often, no matter how much discussion and debate ensues, neither party has a change of mind (why should they?), and to try to then pursue matters beyond that point is at best simply a waste of time (having the same old debate again and again and again and again and again), but at worst to actually risk introducing the temptation to end up with wrong feelings towards one another and actual relationship breakdown.

Definition: agreement to differ is simply the mature biblical response to intractable disagreement over issues that are not foundational, thus guarding the wider unity of the relationships being put potentially at risk because of the ongoing discord. I don’t mean that we dumb everything down and continue to just fellowship willy-nilly with believers in serious unrepentant black-and-white chapter-and-verse sin, or who push serious doctrinal error such as denies the very foundations of the Christian faith, but what I do mean is that there are somewhat wider parameters and scope for acceptable differing understandings of things, both doctrinal and practical, than we often think. Whatever our understanding might be regarding, for instance, the timing of the Rapture relative to the Second Coming, or whether the Church has replaced Israel permanently or temporarily Or anything else of a similar vein), it doesn’t make any qualitative difference to the godliness, or lack of it, of our everyday lives. Likewise, if a truly godly family likes Harry Potter as entertainment whereas you disapprove, then what does it ultimately matter? If they aren’t demanding that everyone else approves, or that others ought to do likewise, then what possible harm is done?

In both Romans and Corinthians Paul teaches that there are things regarding which the Lord has not provided any black-and-white-chapter-and-verse definitive instructions. The way to handle such things, he says, is for each believer to simply be true to their own conscience and to leave everybody else to theirs. Whether it’s meat-eating versus vegetarianism, or observing or ignoring special days such as sabbaths, Christians are to just leave each other alone and make no judgement. I must do what my conscience dictates regarding such matters, and you must do likewise. And although Paul obviously gives examples that pertained then, there are a gazillion ones that would fit the bill today. and which are therefore our equivalents. Drinking alcohol or not, watching TV or not, celebrating Christmas or not, reading Harry Potter books or not – the list is endless!

Regarding such matters scripture teaches that there is no necessity whatever for Christians to be in agreement, or to even try to come to agreement. Each is free – indeed, commanded – to be true to their own conscience and we must never interfere with other believers freedom to do the same. So this is what I mean when I say that, when biblically appropriate so do do, Christians need to learn how to just agree to differ.

I will deal with the second of these phrases in the morning. So see you then!

Christians, border walls, Brexit, politicians, hypocrisy et al!

As someone who divides his time between the UK and US, I find it both extraordinary and fascinating to see the two nations in such complete governmental chaos at exactly the same time. As America endures the longest government shut-down in its history, the British government suffers the most devastating parliamentary defeat in our nations’ political history. If, like me, political observation is somewhat of a hobby for you, this is all great fun, but it doesn’t change the fact that such events are monumental. As a result a perennial question is now on the lips of ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic even more-so than usual, and it simply this: Why can’t politicians just be honest, open and transparent about what they believe and then behave consistently with said beliefs? Why do they have to so often be so utterly disingenuous and hypocritical?

But the question all this provokes me to ask is somewhat different, and it is this: Why are so many Christians, and especially Christian leaders, so like the politicians I have just referred to? Why can’t we, as the Lord’s people, just be honest, open and transparent about what the Bible teaches, and stop being so dishonest and disingenuous regarding the bits we keep desperately trying to avoid because of the increasing disapproval of the surrounding culture? Why can’t we just surrender to the Lord once and for all and submit to what scripture teaches irrespective of the profound changes we would have to make in our lives?

For over 40 years I have seen again and again and again that many Christians, leaders included, simply ignore what the Bible teaches regarding certain things it simply doesn’t suit them to address. Even regarding such biblically fundamental issues as the sanctity of marriage and family life, and the differing role of gender within it, believers by and large just turn a blind eye to, for instance, the fact that remarriage after divorce, with some very limited exceptions, is adultery, and that God has ordained the husband to be the head of the family, and that leadership in the church is exclusively male. Because Christian leaders know that many in their various congregations would vote with their feet if they taught what the Bible says regarding such things, and especially if biblical church discipline was being properly exercised where disobedience to such prevailed, they therefore either never even refer to such offending passages in the New Testament or, should such issues ever be raised, just summarily dismiss them by repeating the knee-jerk ‘christian’ mantra that we are not to judge, and that grace and forgiveness means we should leave anything offensive or controversial well alone and just accept whatever way things are. The fact that scripture teaches the exact opposite of such thinking is thereby also avoided, and church attenders are spared unwanted biblically-oriented teaching and thinking entering their consciousness. This is what I mean when I say that so many Christians, and especially Christian leaders, behave more like self-serving politicians than they do disciples of Jesus.

Picking and choosing which bits of the Bible’s teaching we approve of and which we don’t, thereby simply ignoring and disobeying the bits we don’t like, is hypocritical, disingenuous and utterly dishonouring to the Lord. Paul the Apostle told the elders of the  churches in Ephesus that he had taught them the ‘whole counsel of God’, yet how many church leaders and Bible teachers today could even vaguely claim to be doing that. Indeed, they know only too well that to do so would cost them not only their treasured popularity, but possibly even their salaries. Christians sit listening to sermons from their leaders week-in-and-week-out for decades without ever being taught some of the most important things scripture has to say. As a result their minds are not being continuously renewed and they therefore remain in conformity to the world and its thinking rather than living in holiness and obedience to the Lord. The New Testament refers to such believers as being carnal Christians! Genuine believers, for sure, but believers who are nonetheless utterly retarded in their spiritual growth and development. The New Testament likens such to grown men and women who still need to be breastfed. A sorry situation indeed!

Across the Atlantic Democratic politicians who just five years ago voted for funding for a wall along the Mexican border are now keeping the government in shut-down by declaring that such a wall is fundamentally immoral, and that they must therefore refuse to grant it. Irrespective of your political stance on immigration and border control, whichever way you cut it, they are being completely and utterly hypocritical! Likewise, here in the United Kingdom politicians who just two years ago pledged commitment to honouring a referendum decision to leave the European Union have since done everything they possibly can to sabotage it and are now, having seen their chance, trying to kill it off completely. Like their American counterparts they are simply demonstrating what self-serving hypocrites they actually are! And Christians who stand firm on whatever aspects of scriptural teaching they happen to agree with, yet who avoid and ignore, and therefore disobey, those aspects which don’t suit them are, equally, similarly behaving like self-serving and disingenuous hypocrites.

Remarriage after divorce, with exotically few exceptions, is adultery, and to not bring church discipline to bear upon those planning to illegitimately remarry is to disobey God’s Word. But how many believers and church leaders are exercised in insuring such a standard prevails in churches?

God has given headship of the family to husbands, and commands that wives submit to it. Likewise, in church life leadership is for men, women being barred from eldership or teaching the gathered church. Yet how many Christian leaders and believers at large are standing firm and strong against the increasing rejection of this truth amongst God’s people?

The New Testament also makes clear that we should imitate the practise of the apostles of Jesus regarding such things as how we conduct church life, how evangelism and baptisms should take place, plus numerous other things which most Christians just ignore and take absolutely no notice of.

It is simply a fact that one of the things that characterises modern Christians is that they simply ignore important and significant teachings of the very Bible – the ‘whole counsel of God’ – whilst purporting to be fully following it! Claiming, as all believers do, the authority of scripture, they then proceed to sit in judgement on it, carefully editing out whichever aspects of its teaching they don’t approve of, or which they know would be too costly and too inconvenient to have to obey.

In the Old Testament one of the constant themes of the judges, and later the prophets, was that, “Every man did what was right in their own eyes.” Having, as they did, God’s Law, they nevertheless had a ‘pick and choose’ attitude and approach to it. Through both judges and prophets the Lord called that exactly what it was, rebellion! Yet today the Church of Jesus Christ, and I mean genuine believers, continues to do much the same thing. Unlike Israel at the time of the judges and prophets we are not under the Mosaic Law but under the new covenant of Grace, yet exactly the same principle applies. We seem to think, just like Israel of old, that we have the right to just pick and choose which scriptural teachings we obey and which we don’t. As with God’s people in the Old Testament we are merely doing what’s right in our own eyes! It is, however, the same now as it was then – rebellion!

But hey! Am I being just too tough here? Is it reasonable to expect Christians to change so radically given that the Christian Church has been going against scripture regarding such things for so long? Is it fair to expect believers to implement su h profound and wide-ranging changes? But hang on a moment! Didn’t Jesus talk about His followers denying self, picking up their crosses and following Him? Didn’t He teach that we would be hated and treated badly by others precisely because our lives are so different, and therefore condemning, of the culture around us? Didn’t Paul command us to be transformed from living a worldly life to living a godly life in Christ Jesus in full obedience to Him and His Word? Doesn’t the New Testament demand that we be willing to forsake everything in order to follow the Lord?

The question for Christians who are actually disciples as well is never whether something is too hard, or too tough, or too costly! The question for them is only ever, “What saith the scriptures? How does Jesus want us to live? What does He want me to be like in every aspect of my life?”

I leave you with a principle I have sought to live by, however failingly and poorly, since the Lord brought me into His kingdom. It is simply this: If I am not standing on God’s Word and living in definite and clear obedience to it at those specific and precise points where others around me, Christians included, have rejected what it teaches, then I am not actually standing on His Word at all!

It is, of course, irrelevant to us as believers that there are politicians who are hypocrites! Of course there are! No surprises there! It should, however, be of the absolutely greatest concern to us to truly test whether or not we, as those who claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus, and who therefore claim to be committed to be living under the authority of the teaching of scripture, are any different to them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A True Story!

Gather round and I’ll tell you a story. It’s a true story, and something of great value can be learned from it. In one sense it’s quite whimsical, but it is also very sad. So here goes…

Once upon a time there were two families who, having been part of a church for several years, suddenly announced that they had discovered together what true fellowship actually was. Having received such a ‘revelation’ of what the Christian life was really about, they had therefore concluded that everyone else with whom they had been in fellowship up to then were just hypocrites who were not following the Lord as they should. God had also, they said, shown them that they must leave the church and start a new life together living in community. So they left behind the brothers and sisters they now believed to be hypocrites and pursued their vision, making all the necessary preparations and arrangements for their new life together. Moving into a shared property they were finally free to experience together the ‘revelation’ of fellowship which they so fully believed the Holy Spirit had given them.

Three weeks later – yes, I kid you not – three weeks later they had a falling out and went their own separate ways, each family having presumably concluded that the other was another example of the same Christian hypocrisy in the church they had left to pursue the vision in the first place.

…and they all didn’t live happily ever after!

So what’s the big lesson here? And I gotta tell you, it’s a really vital one! And it’s the importance of properly understanding the simple biblical principle that if there is un-acknowledged and un-dealt with sin in our lives that we aren’t being honest about, then instead of judging ourselves and repenting of that sin, which is what we should do, we will start to see it in everyone else’s lives and (quite wrongly) accuse them of it instead.

What the two families in our story failed to realise, though it was pointed out to them before they left the church, was that the problem they thought they were identifying in others was actually in them. So when they left to start their new life together they just took the problem with them. And precisely because it was their problem, as opposed to anyone else’s, they inevitably ended up seeing in each other the same ‘hypocrisy’ which they had previously thought they were seeing in everyone else in the church.

When Jesus taught about removing the log in one’s own eye before trying to remove a speck in someone else’s, this is exactly what He was meaning. A Christian who has a tree trunk in their eye is not going to be very good at identifying a splinter in someone else’s. If a believer can’t even identify, and be honest about, their own sin, then how on earth do they expect to be able to think clearly and rationally concerning other people’s?

Many Christians seem to be completely unaware that the anger, resentment and sense of having been ‘offended’ by others which they so readily feel, is actually their reaction to, and therefore evidence of, the Holy Spirit convicting them of sin, but of sin which they aren’t willing to be honest about and repent of. Many believers spend their entire Christian lives going from church to church, group to group, fellowship to fellowship, only ever settling anywhere for any length of time to the extent that their ears are being ‘tickled’ by whatever it is they want to hear, and whilst no-one is likely to advise, correct or admonish them regarding their sin. But even when no-one is advising, correcting or admonishing them regarding sin, they often still eventually fall out with those around them thus moving on yet again, because their unrepentant state means they remain spiritual babies who get easily upset and offended at things which mature believers wouldn’t even notice, let alone allow themselves to be negatively affected by. They only ever think of themselves as being the innocent victims of the wrongdoing of others, whilst never being open to the fact that they might themselves be the guilty perpetrators of wrongdoing! It is sad that so many Christians today think in such a way!

A profound change came about in my own Christian life when the Lord started to work on me in this regard, and when I started to realise that my biggest problem wasn’t other people’s sin, but my own. I started to realise that, for instance, the problem wasn’t that other people were irritating, but rather that I was irritable – and Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 13 that irritability is not love, and therefore sin! So what was the big change? It was that I started to at last identify what the real problem was! Me! It wasn’t, as I had always just assumed and taken for granted, that other people were, for instance, irritating, but rather that I was irritable! And man oh man, what a difference that made! It was exactly the same regarding how I would so easily consider other people to be annoying! And what I saw was that irrespective of whether others were being annoying or not, the real problem was that I would so easily get annoyed. And that was because of my own self-righteousness which I was failing to judge.

This is why we need to periodically ask the Lord to show us anew just how sinful we actually are, and just how terrible our sin actually is. We so readily justify our sinful reactions by concentrating on what we perceive to be the wrongdoing of others, and in particular of whoever it is we are reacting against at any one time. I’m not saying there is never a time for legitimate anger or annoyance – as scripture says, “Be angry, but sin not!” – but let’s be clear that so much of what we would like to put down to being righteous anger is really just our own intolerance, peevishness and resentment at having not gotten our own way over something, or with having not been agreed with, or whatever!

The two families in our story got into such a terrible mess because they weren’t willing to face up to the simple fact that the problem they were struggling with was in them and not others, and that it would therefore go with them wherever they went. They were just blaming others for their own un-dealt with sin and disobedience to the Lord. It’s a bit like if someone were to trip over their shoelaces, having not done them up properly, and then shift the blame by accusing others of having pushed them.

There are so many Christians of whom it can be said that nothing is ever their fault! The sin, the mess, the division and contention – or whatever – that surrounds them wherever they go is, so they claim, always due to the wrongdoing of others, and never their own!

May we not, I pray, be numbered among them!

Law and Grace – Part 2

We saw yesterday that although we aren’t under the Mosaic Law we are nevertheless still bound by the commands and strictures of the New Covenant, including the ones which many Christians seem to not like. There is nothing lawless about the Christian life, and we are scripturally bound by what God’s Word terms the ‘Royal Law.’ Not being under the Mosaic Law doesn’t mean that we are not under anything at all. Indeed, not being under Moses means we are actually under the Lord Jesus Christ, and precisely as Lord of all He is meant to be obeyed, and obeyed implicitly! But what about the teaching that many Christians buy into that we are meant to still be subject to the Mosaic Law in some way? Let’s go to the scripture we need then in this regard:

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

‘The days are coming, declares the Lord,

    when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
    It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
    This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.’

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:7-13)

I think the problem is that some Christians fear that the idea of the Mosaic Law being done away with in some way impugns it, and therefore disrespects the Lord Himself and His chosen people Israel. This is understandable but mistaken. Paul deals with this in his writings too (Romans 7 and Galatians 3 in particular), and demonstrates how the Law was perfect for what it was designed to do, but that having so wonderfully fulfilled its role is now necessarily obsolete. I hope this isn’t going to be too ‘Trekkie’ for anyone but let’s properly understand this by looking at modern day space travel and getting to grips with the design of the space shuttle and how it works.

The difference between the space shuttle and more conventional spacecraft is that it is designed to return to earth intact after each mission. It is, in such respect, as much an aircraft as it is a spacecraft. But of course in order to get into orbit in the first place it needs far more fuel than it could ever contain within itself. In order to fulfil whatever mission it is on, and then return to earth in one piece, it has to be designed just the way it is, thus precluding any idea of it having tanks large enough to hold enough fuel to get it into orbit. It is therefore fitted with booster rockets which do contain enough fuel, but which are not an integral part of its design. The shuttle is therefore transported into orbit through the agency of these attached booster rockets which, once in orbit, are ejected to be burned up and destroyed as they re-enter the atmosphere, being no longer needed.

Now here’s the point: although once the shuttle is approaching orbital height the booster rockets are jettisoned, it’s not because they were no good, or because they were a load of rubbish, or because they were flawed in some way and couldn’t get the job done, having to therefore be replaced by something better. No! They are jettisoned precisely because they have done their job and are therefore just no longer needed. More than that, if they weren’t jettisoned and remained attached to the shuttle they would actually become a dangerous liability. They would not only hinder the shuttle in the performance of its mission whilst in space, but actually cause its destruction upon re-entry as both boosters and shuttle burn up in the atmosphere. Streamlining is not needed anything like as much during take-off as it is during re-entry.

This is exactly the case with the Mosaic Law. The reason it is redundant since the death of Jesus is because it finished its job and simply has no further role to play. It got Israel, and humanity in general, to the coming of Jesus and therefore to the enactment of the New Covenant. It didn’t fail in any way at all! Indeed, it performed its role to complete perfection! But having done its job, then just like the booster rockets on the space shuttle, it is discarded. But also like the booster rockets on the space shuttle, any failure to properly discard it inevitably results in disaster further down the line, and any mixture of the Old Covenant with the New Covenant will rob the believer of the full experience of what being in the New Covenant is actually all about.

In every respect the New Covenant, outlined largely in the New Testament, trumps the Old Covenant, and therefore also much in the Old Testament. And for anyone who balks at that and wants to hang on to their Old Testament ‘booster rockets’ just be clear that throughout the Old Testament God allowed, and blessed, polygamy. However, neither polygamy nor the Law of Moses are for Christians who are under the New Covenant of Grace. The ‘old’ is gone and only the New Covenant now stands!

One more thing: What about the Ten Commandments? Aren’t they binding on Christians? Answer: Of course not!! The Decalogue, so called, is part of a covenant that is, as we are seeing, dead and gone. None of it’s commands are therefore binding on anyone, let alone believers who are under the New Covenant. But of course nine of those ten commandments are brought over into the New Covenant and are therefore binding on us for that reason! So, of course we aren’t free to lie, or to commit adultery or steal etc; but not because those commands are in the Old Covenant (Mosaic Law) but because they are also part of the New Covenant of Grace. The only command in the Decalogue that isn’t carried over into the New Covenant is the sabbath command, this being why sabbath observance is not part of the Christian life. (Though Paul does give concession that if someone has a weak conscience regarding it, then it is correct for them to observe such!)

So what we actually have here with the whole Law and Grace thing is is another example of the twin errors of Legalism and License. To in any way insist that the Mosaic Law is binding on the believer is to require more than the New Covenant does, and is hence legalism; but to distort Paul’s teaching about Law and Grace so as to imply that there are New Covenant commands we are free to break is to not require as much as the New Covenant does, and is therefore licentiousness. (There were obviously aspects of the function of the Mosaic Law which I haven’t mentioned relative to the nation of Israel whilst it was a theocracy, but we are here only concerned with it as it pertains to the Christian life.)

Definition: We are not under the Law of Moses because it has done its job and has been jettisoned so as to make way for the New Covenant of Grace. However, the New Covenant of Grace, though a free gift that cannot be earned, nevertheless contains commands and demands that Christians are duty bound to fully obey and to be in compliance with. These demands and commands are clearly stated in the pages of the New Testament and are non-negotiable, including those which many modern Christians don’t appear to like very much!

 

Law and Grace – Part 1

“…for you are not under law but under grace…” (Romans 6:14)

Many believers seem to be quite hazy on this, so because it’s so important it might be profitable to take a deeper look. I can illustrate the way in which many believers completely mis-understand this crucial verse through the story of a young guy I knew who, during a discussion about keeping to speed limits on the road, maintained that it didn’t matter that he would regularly speed in his car because as a Christian he wasn’t under law but under grace. And there you have it!

Another example would be the sheer number of believers, especially here in the UK, who are feminists, and who unquestioningly accept the idea of female pastors and Bible teachers. When made aware of the verses in the New Testament that specifically teach against this, rather than addressing what those verses actually say they will similarly just play the ‘law vs grace’ card. They virtually always go straight to the verse where Paul says, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6) However, their take on this is that it means that the Holy Spirit will sometimes lead believers counter to what scripture teaches about certain things, and that when that happens then we must obviously go with His leading irrespective of what the text of scripture says. This, they say, is an aspect of what ‘not being under law but under grace’ means.

What they never seem to properly address though is just how widely this principle they so readily espouse might be legitimately applied. After all, if the Holy Spirit leads some believers to go against some of the things clearly taught in the New Testament (such as women not being in leadership in the churches), then what’s to stop Him leading any believer to go against anything taught in it? Might the Holy Spirit lead a single guy to sleep with his girlfriend? Might He lead a husband to leave his wife for another woman? Might He lead someone to abort their baby? Might He, as many Christians are now claiming, be leading God’s people to embrace gay marriage?

And of course it’s no use responding, as they often do, by saying that He would never lead anyone to do anything like that, because any such objection could only be on the basis that scripture clearly teaches that such things are wrong, and that the Holy Spirit would therefore never lead anyone to do them. But hang on! The New Testament equally teaches that we should obey the governing powers, and that it’s wrong for women to be in church leadership! So do you see the problem? I obviously accept that having women in leadership in the church isn’t in the same league of wrongdoing as such things as speeding, immorality or abortion, but the point here isn’t degrees of wrongness but simply whether or not scripture teaches a particular thing, whatever it might be. The inconsistency of such thinking is absolutely astounding! To maintain that some things scripture teaches are absolute and therefore binding whilst other things it teaches are negotiable and can be overruled by the leading of the Holy Spirit is complete nonsense. And of course the other problem is that of who gets to decide which bits are binding and which bits aren’t, and how one could be sure that what one concludes is the leading of the Holy Spirit and not an evil spirit deceiving one! The moment you buy into the deception that the Holy Spirit ever leads counter to scripture, then what you are actually saying is that you can simply decide for yourself which bits of the Bible you are willing to obey and which you are not. It is to be in disobedience to God”s Word, in whatever way, whilst trying to make out that He actually wants you to do so. Convenient, eh?

So let’s get this clear in our minds once and for all. In both the above verses Paul is comparing the Law of Moses to the covenant of grace (being saved by grace through faith in Jesus), and making the simple point that obedience to the Law of Moses doesn’t, and was never intended, to save, such being the reason for the establishment of the covenant of grace which does. The Law convicts of sin in order to demonstrate our need of salvation, but is not itself designed to do anything further. It is, so to speak, the straight edge that reveals our bent-ness! Only the covenant of grace, the new covenant, can bring about forgiveness and result in us being declared righteous in God’s sight. The Mosaic Law (the letter) kills because it convicts of sin and that is all, whereas the New Covenant (the Spirit) actually enables personal holiness through the Lord’s life in the believer. Paul’s comparison is not, therefore, letter – as in the text of scripture, vs Spirit – as in the subjective guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit in the believers life. No! It is the Mosaic Law vs the New Covenant of Grace!

But although the covenant of grace is, by very definition, salvation apart from works; that is, a free gift, and therefore not in any way earned or merited, it nevertheless still contains commands and instructions which, once saved, we are required to submit to. It isn’t that getting to Heaven is then contingent upon ongoing obedience to those commands, of course not! Getting to Heaven is contingent upon what Jesus did for us on the cross, and that we have entered into that through faith in Him; but having become God’s children when we were born again – that being what being born actually means – our Father in Heaven wants us to then be good children who are becoming increasingly obedient to Him. Further, he will discipline, and even punish us, when we are not being obedient, but such chastisement has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not we will make it to Heaven. It’s simply that He wants us to start being the obedient children down here that we will eventually fully and perfectly be for eternity in glory.

Definition: the law we are not under is the Mosaic Law which kills. We are, however, under the New Covenant which gives life, and which requires us to live in obedience to whatever scripture teaches other than the Mosaic Law. Regarding our examples of obeying the law of the land when driving, and women not being in leadership in the church, both are taught in the New Testament quite separate to the Mosaic Law, and are therefore binding on us as Christians. Being under grace is not, therefore, as many believers seem to think, a form of lawlessness that gives us the freedom to just go against anything in the Bible we don’t happen to like, and to do so by claiming that the Holy Spirit is leading us. The Holy Spirit never leads counter to scripture – He wrote it, for heavens sake – and we are completely deceived if we think but for one moment that He does.

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)

That’s the balance! There you have the correct mix! The law that was given through Moses is, as Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers make so clear, gone! It has been superseded and replaced by the covenant of grace. But that covenant of grace isn’t just grace alone with no further definition or clarification! No! It is grace and truthand that changes everything! And the truth of this covenant of grace that we are under, its terms and conditions, have been fully revealed in the pages of the New Testament, there therefore being a great many requirements and demands on us. In other words, it is also law in such respect, just like the Law of Moses is! It has different commands and instructions in many respects, certainly, but it nevertheless still does contain commands and instructions that we are expected by the Lord to live in obedience to. Paul calls this new covenant ‘the law of the Spirit’, whilst James refers to it as being the ‘royal law!’ And there you have it! Not being under the Mosaic Law doesn’t mean we aren’t under law at all. Quite the contrary! We are under the law of the new covenant of grace! So whereas it’s fully biblical to think in terms of the Mosaic Law vs Grace, it is completely unbiblical to think in terms of Grace vs Truth! So too when it comes to love. We can no more set love and truth against each other than we can grace and truth. As Paul says, “..speaking the truth in love…” (Ephesians 4:15)

There is therefore never a legitimate choice between grace and truth, any more than there can be a legitimate choice between love and truth. It is never grace or truth, and neither is it ever be love or truth. This isn’t an either/or deal but strictly a both/and one! It’s grace and truth and love and truth…or it is none of them at all! Whether you choose grace and love over truth, or truth over grace and love, you will always end up with something that is not only unbiblical, but ugly in the extreme. As we saw in an earlier post, you will end up being either harshly legalistic or sinfully licentiousness! Grace and scripture, and love and scripture! That’s the balance!

Al’righty then! We’ve dealt with the error of thinking that not being under law but under grace is a kind of lawlessness, but now we must tackle the equal and opposite error which many Christians buy into, that we are in some way still under the Mosaic Law.

See you tomorrow then!