More on Western Thought…

I thought it might be helpful to expand somewhat on my last post concerning the error of approaching the Bible, a Jewish book, with a Western (Greek philosophical) mindset. Various verses from the New Testament are pertinent here:

Jesus said, “If any man will do His will he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God…” (John 7:17)

And what I want the reader to take careful note of is that to our Western way of thinking what Jesus says there  appears to us to be the wrong way round. Western thought would put the intellectual process of establishing whether or not a doctrine is biblical first, and then take things from there. But Jesus reverses that approach and says that intellectual understanding is the result, and not the cause, of practical obedience to whatever biblical truth is in view. So what comes first for Him is not the intellectual process of understanding what the Bible teaches, but rather the active determination to obey it and to actually live out whatever one comes to understand from its pages. And the difference is as wide as the world! We are so conditioned in our thinking on this but it is we, and not Jesus, who have got it back-to-front.

This Jewish/biblical/divinely-inspired thinking and approach to scripture reveals just how ridiculous, and hypocritical, the Western/Greek thinking approach to biblical doctrine actually is. The idea that to be biblically and doctrinally ‘sound’ is to do with holding correct beliefs, as opposed to how we live, is completely alien to scripture. There are some other verses we need to look at in this regard:

In his letter to Titus Paul writes: “You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” (Titus 2:1-10. Emphasis mine.)

And of course the thing to notice is that, having exhorted Titus to be teaching sound doctrine, he then goes on to define what he means, and he is clearly thinking of godly behaviour and not ‘doctrinal concepts’ such as the Trinity, election, atonement etc. It is Western thinking that would use the phrase ‘sound doctrine’ to denote belief systems, not scripture!

Conversely, Paul wrote to Timothy, “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (Timothy 1:9-10. Emphasis mine.)

Here we have the antithesis! Paul’s definition of false doctrine isn’t to do with erroneous unbiblical teachings such as universalism, salvation by works, unitarianism, or whatever, but is rather to do with sinful, ungodly behaviour. So what we are seeing here is indeed precisely what I highlighted in my last post. The whole push of scripture is that a Christian can only be said to be holding to ‘sound doctrine’ to the extent that they are actually patently and clearly living out that biblical truth, as opposed to merely accepting and believing whatever the Bible teaches. As we saw last time, Satan and his hordes do that, even though they would rather not have to.

So what does all this boil down to? Simply this: The teaching of God’s Word is that ‘sound doctrine’ is when believers lay down their lives on the altar of unconditional obedience to whatever scripture may or may not teach, and only secondarily that they then seek to fully embrace such truth intellectually. The Holy Spirit then grants supernatural revelation of scripture’s teaching, thus changing our hearts and minds that we come to actually embody in the Lord what those truths necessitate and imply by way of practical obedience and a godly lifestyle. The resultant intellectual understanding will, of course, be the same in essence as that gained by the merely doctrinal ‘tick box’ approach – truth is truth, after all, and doesn’t change – but of course the difference is that the former is correct biblical thinking, whereas the latter is mere hypocrisy. I call it doctrinalism, and it is the result of a combination of the legacy of the Greek thinking of the Early Church Fathers, plus the desire of our sinful hearts, even as believers, to live for self as opposed to making the self-sacrifice of living for the Lord and for others. It is, in effect, a sort of theological jiggery-pokery by which Christians seek to justify believing one thing whilst living another.

Think of it like this: The purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is to cause us to live our lives on the basis of a significant and open sharing of ourselves with others in mutual love, service and accountability. It’s purpose is to reveal something of what the Lord is like in such regard, and therefore what we should be becoming like as well. However, all too many Christians are merely theorist ‘doctrinal Trinitarians’ living selfish un-sacrificed and unshared lives, in unbiblical churches which function in such a way so as to virtually guarantee the absence of any significant mutual personal openness, transparency or accountability.

The doctrines of atonement, propitiation and imputation; that is, what has been secured in order to grant the forgiveness of our sins, should lead us to understand that, as Jesus once said to a Pharisee of a repentant formerly loose woman, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”  Yet many believers, though believing these doctrines intellectually and accepting their truth, completely fail to realise just how sinful they actually are, and therefore just how much they have been forgiven, and therefore love so little as a consequence. They may well understand that the Bible teaches they are forgiven, but the true biblical heart-changing revelational impact, borne of the Holy Spirit, which leads to a life of self-sacrificial and truly practical love for the Lord and others, just isn’t there.

And as we also saw last time, there are sadly all too many Christians, church leaders included (especially, even), who, whilst completely and fully believing in the ‘doctrine’ of God’s grace, need just the slightest thing to go against them, or have someone annoy or threaten their position in some way, in order to unleash their pure ungraciousness like a godless waterfall.

So, does this mean that a correct understanding of biblical doctrine on an intellectual level doesn’t matter then? No! Of course not! I am as hot on ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ as anybody else. In fact, a good bit hotter than many believers seem to be nowadays! But the error of doctrinalism, as I am here describing it, has plagued the Christian church now for far too long. To be a hypocritical ‘carnal’ Christian (as Paul puts it in his Corinthian letter) is one thing, but to have a so-called theological justification for being so (that is, the doctrinalism of Western/Greek thought when brought to bear on the Jewish scriptures) is just a bit sick.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:14-26)

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth….We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (I John 3:16-18 and I John 4:19-21)

I rest my case!

 

The Joy of Repentance

I can truly say that I want to please the Lord. For all the things I am not sure of, and everything I still don’t understand and can’t work out or properly comprehend, I am nevertheless absolutely clear that I do want to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. My problem is, however, the sin that stands so distressingly in the way. I want to please Him, yet know my heart to be full of pride, selfishness, covetousness, self-righteousness and all kinds of evil. In what possible way, then, can I please a holy God? Well, there is a way; and it not only pleases Him, it utterly delights His heart:

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”(Luke 15:3-10)

And there you have it! Those verses don’t say that it is the angels who rejoice, though I’m sure they do, but that there is rejoicing going on before them. And so I ask: Who is it in Heaven before Whom the angels stand? Answer! The Lord Himself! Imagine! The Almighty God rejoices when a sinner repents. It would obviously be so much the better if I could please Him by not actually being sinful any more, and that day will certainly come when I am with Him having been freed from this body, and it should certainly be the case for all of us that we are seeing a progressive victory in overcoming sin in our lives, but it is nevertheless wonderful to know that, in the meantime, being honest about sin, and coming clean through confession when we have sinned, brings Him joy. In other words, I can’t please Him with sinlessness (if only I could), but I can bring Him pleasure and joy through ongoing confession and repentance.

Now there are those who would argue that the rejoicing alluded to in the above verses is limited to a sinner’s initial conversion; that is, when they first come to the Lord in repentance and faith, and of course it most most certainly does include that. But in the same way that a father is joyful at the birth of his child, and then joyful from that moment onwards, so too is the Lord thrilled not just when we are born again, but continuously as we grow in Him throughout the ensuing years. There is no way I can properly express the joy I knew when Bethany was born, yet that joy has increased as every year has gone by, and not in any way decreased. Whatever thrilled me about her when she was born, and she thrilled me beyond words, still thrills me all the more as each month goes by as I have watched her grow and develop. What a sad father who knows joy for their child’s birth, yet not throughout the years that follow. In fact, in becoming a father I have experienced an ongoing paradox which I’ve never been able to properly describe, though I do intend to have a jolly good go!

At whatever point in time I look back to as Bethany’s father I know that I was as thrilled to bits with her as I could have been. When she was a baby my overwhelming feeling was, “Man, this is amazing! She’s incredible! It just can’t get any better than this! Please Lord, don’t ever let this change!” Then, when she was a toddler I was thinking, “Man, this is amazing! She’s incredible! It just can’t get any better than this! Please Lord, don’t ever let her change!” Then, when she was small child I thought, “Man, this is amazing! She’s incredible! It just can’t get any better than this! Please Lord, don’t ever let her change!” Then when she got to her teens I thought…and so on and so forth, right up to this very new morning as I write!

From the moment she was born I thought she was absolutely amazing and, just as did Belinda, I fell utterly and completely in love with her. At any given moment it was completely beyond me how she could be any better, and I could only see any change as a negative and a step down. I therefore longed that she never would. Yet as each and every ensuing minute, hour, day, week, month and year passed, it was equally utterly beyond me at any one of those given moments also how this fatherhood thing could get any better, and my ongoing desire was always, at any given time, that she would never change. And yet, by definition, she was changing all the time, if only in that she was slowly, but surely, in the process of growing up. So I could never imagine how it could have gotten any better because I knew it was already as good as it could possibly be, and so I therefore didn’t want anything to change; but of course she did change, and yet I was still always, in any given moment, thinking, “Man, this just doesn’t get any better! Please Lord, don’t let her ever change” And so it goes on…

For me, therefore, fatherhood has been to live in a completely paradoxical state of being utterly unable, at any given moment, to imagine how being my daughters father could get any better, thereby never wanting anything to change in such regard, yet finding the exact same thing to also be the case at every point during the ensuing years, meaning that it was actually getting better all the time, and that she was changing and growing, even though it seemed to me at any one moment that it never could get any better or that her changing could ever be an improvement. At any given present moment I could look back on any given past moment at which I genuinely perceived that neither parenthood, nor Bethany, could have gotten any better, therefore yearning for it to never change, yet whilst still perceiving exactly the same thing in any given present moment, which, by definition, meant it had obviously gotten better, and precisely because she had changed…yet it still couldn’t have gotten any better because it was already as good as it could get…and…and…Man, life sure is strange…!!!

However confusing all this might seem it’s really just a description of what it means to love someone…and I love my daughter very, very much. She is, quite simply, wonderful, and always has been, but of course it is as much my love for her that I am describing as it is a description of her, and that is the real point here when it comes to us understanding in what ways we can be pleasing to the Lord! Because however deep and real my love for Bethany is – and it is extremely deep and intensely real – it is as nothing compared to how deep and real God’s love is for me…and therefore for you! And He loves us in exactly this same paradoxical way that I have just described in regards to my own fatherhood. His joy at our repentance, indeed, His joy at us, is not just for when we are born again and when we first come to Him in repentance and surrender, but precisely, just like our human parenting, from that point onwards. We have been born again into His family and have therefore become His children, and that in itself makes Him extremely happy; but it is wonderful in the extreme to know too that, whereas I make Him happy simply because I am His child; indeed, I can’t but make Him happy in such regard – after all, I can’t ever stop being His son – I can actually bring Him joy and pleasure on top of that by being on-goingly honest, and repentant, concerning my sin.

My joy over Bethany is therefore actually two-fold: firstly, simply because she is my daughter; but secondly, because she truly is as delightful, kind, godly and gracious a young lady as you could wish to meet. (Just ask anyone who knows her!)  And although it is wonderful enough to know that we please the Lord simply because we are His children, I for one nevertheless want to please Him also by the way I actually am; that is, by living in honesty, confession and repentance of my sins. Many Christians, I am greatly saddened to say, aren’t particularly honest about their sins or repentant of them, but at least I can be if I so choose. And that choice brings me joy in knowing not just that the Lord both forgives and restores me, but that it actually brings Him joy and happiness that I am so living.

Like my joy over Bethany, the joy of repentance is also twofold: It is joyful for the one who is penitent because of the peace and forgiveness it brings, but it is also a joy to such a one’s Father in Heaven Who finds infinite pleasure in His children being honest about their wrongdoing, and then saying sorry not just to Him, but to each other as well.

As a young Christian, before I properly understood what the Lord’s grace actually was, and what it actually meant, I was uncomfortable in the extreme with the subject matter we are here discussing, and I remember coming across a book, the title of which utterly baffled me. It was called, “Repentance: the Joy-Filled Life!” Just the title frightened the life out me, and I wouldn’t have dared read it back then in a million years. But now? Well, now I get it! And man, how wonderfully I get it too!

The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to boldly approach the throne of grace in a time of need to receive mercy and help. Firstly, thrones are usually representative of power and strength, not grace and mercy. But then Jesus sits on this throne, and so I feel safe. Secondly, I come boldly and not in snivelling fear! Why?Because I’m qualified! I meet the criteria for approaching! And thirdly, I get what I come for! That is, grace, mercy and forgiveness! And why? Because my need, every day, even as a believer – no, precisely because I’m a believer – is to have my sins cleansed and removed by the Lamb of God Who takest away the sins of the world; mine included!

A Rather Dangerous Thing To Do…

DangerAfter I had known the Lord for about five years I did something which, looking back, was a bit of a spiritually dangerous thing to do. It was most certainly an absolutely right and biblical thing to do, and I have no doubt whatsoever that the Lord Himself led me to do it, but it was nonetheless decidedly risky. I asked the Lord to show me the true extent of my sinfulness and what it meant to carry the cross. I asked Him to show me what it meant to die daily to self and be one with Him in His death and resurrection. I am not exaggerating in any way at all when I say that, over the years that followed, I truly didn’t know what hit me.

There is no doubt in my mind that I really did know before then that I was a sinner. Indeed, the night I came to the Lord, totally out of the blue, I knew for the first time in my life that I was sinful and in need of His forgiveness and mercy. It was not a concept I had in any way previously comprehended, but that night I really was a penitent sinner cut down by a deep and abiding conviction of my depravity before God and the need for both forgiveness and cleansing. In other words, I was no fair-weather convert having responded to some perverted evangelistic message to the mere effect that God loved me and had a wonderful plan for my life. No! I knew beyond doubt that night that I was quite deservedly headed for a terrible and godless eternity, and that the Lord was commanding me to repent and to surrender to Him in the obedience of saving faith.

But however real that was, and it was extremely real, it doesn’t change the fact that the conviction of sin that I experienced upon my initial conversion, and over the handful of years that followed was, so to speak, just a taster. It was a sample, if you will, and a very small one at that, and it was only after several years of God dealing with me following that prayer that He began to show me something of the full extent of my sinfulness. Only then did I actually begin to appreciate and understand the sheer extent of the deceptiveness and evil of my heart. He demonstrated to me, quite terribly, that the simple truth was that, even though I had been a Christian for some years, I was still largely blind to the sin in me He yet wanted to reveal to me and deliver me from.

There are all manner of ways to describe the great need of the hour for those who claim to be followers of Jesus. Becoming comprehensively biblical! Growing in godliness! Coming into maturity! Living in obedience to Him! Yes, of course! But what it really boils down to is this: far too many believers who have been believers for years appear to be still largely ignorant of what their sins actually are. They live more in accordance with a kind of accepted, but rather wooly, Christian cultural ‘mindset’ then in deliberate comprehensive obedience to what the Bible actually teaches. They have, it would appear, called a ‘truce’ with the world, embracing a morally respectable, yet completely worldly, godlessness, where things like pride, covetousness, selfishness, the love of money and pursuit of material affluence go largely un-judged.

Part of what I do involves me, at times, in having to engage with brothers in the Lord, and sometimes their wives too, who are in process of shipwrecking their faith. Whether it be through immorality, bitterness and resentment, the love of money, or whatever, my desire and aim is to bring them to repentance and restoration, and freedom from the folly that has overtaken them. It is a joy when success becomes apparent, but heartbreak beyond words should they refuse to put lives in order.

But such situations, and here’s my point, make me realise yet again, as it should do us all, the sheer depth and danger of my own sinfulness, and how easily, but for the grace of the Lord, I could go the same way. As believers we must indeed judge each another and hold one another to account, just as scripture commands us to do (1 Corinthians 5), yet none of us dare forget, but for an instant, that we all stand in equal danger of any who are falling by the wayside, and thus forsaking the Lord and shipwrecking their faith. Scripture warns us of the deceptiveness of sin, and it behoves each one of to periodically quite intentionally ask the Lord to show us afresh just how sinful and prone to deception and self-righteousness we actually are.

“Search me O God and try my heart, and see if there be any wicked way in me.” So cried out the Psalmist in an exhortation we dare not ignore. Paul quite undeniably categorised some Christians as being carnal as opposed to being spiritual, and herein lies the difference between the two. Carnal Christians are little aware of their sinfulness and, broadly speaking, consider their lives to be theirs to do with petty much as they please. The probably won’t be sexually immoral or tell too many lies or anything like that, but outside of the ‘blatant’ stuff still perceive life to be lived in whatever way they fancy. Spiritual Christians however, in complete contrast, are not only fully aware of their sin, they also greatly fear it! They therefore surrender all, every day, lest in failing to do so they surrender instead to the sin they so greatly dread.

Further, carnal Christians will probably consider what I have written as being far too dour and negative for them. Spiritual Christians, however (and I use this phrase as does Paul in 1 Corinthians), will read these words not only with a sense of gratitude for the reminder, but also with a sense of the sheer joy that comes from knowing not only that their sins are forgiven, but that because they are also living in daily repentance, they don’t have to keep trying to deny, hide or excuse them any more.

We shall return to this in the next post…