February 22, 2010

I Quit!

That is what we ought to say when we finish reading Romans 4.4-5: “I quit!”. Read the verses and you will see what I mean:

“Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

So you don’t get to quit your job. Sorry! But there is a far deeper sigh of relief to be breathed after reading Romans 4.4-5. As a Christian, there are a lot of things you cannot quit. But the one task you can lay aside forever is the task of trying to work your way into God’s good graces. God does not call on you to work your way to salvation. Nor does He call you, once you have been saved by grace, to work to keep your salvation. And, eternal life secure, He doesn’t even call you to work in order to stay on His good side from day to day. If you want to be right with God, and stay right with God, God simply asks you to stop working and start believing “in Him who justifies the ungodly.”

In fact, if you try to work your way into heaven, or into a better friendship with God … all you can do is drive yourself further away. Because work is exactly what God does not want you to do! Working your way into God’s good graces is the greatest form of pride: ‘I don’t need God to do it for me. I can do just fine myself!’. And God is opposed to that kind of haughtiness, is He not?

So go ahead and say it: ‘I quit! I am not going to rely on myself and my character or my behavior or my morality or my do-betters or my try-harders anymore!’ O, it is important that we do better and try harder. It shows that we are growing in our love for God. But hear this well: Our doing better never, ever, ever causes God to grow in His love for us! I want to say that again to make sure you really get it:

Our doing better in the Christian life is important. It shows that we are growing in our love for God. But our doing better never, ever causes God to grow in His love for us.

How could God love us any more than to give us His Son? To think we could make God love us more than John 3.16 is absurd and, perhaps, blasphemous. So let’s quit trying to do so!

Do you want more logic behind the ‘I quit’? Then ask yourself: Which do I enjoy more? My weekly paycheck (big as it may be) … or an unexpected tax refund? Finding out that you are getting $1000 dollars back (instead of paying $500 in) is quite invigorating, is it not? So here’s the deal: Even if we could earn some sort of points with God by virtue of our works (v.4), there would be very little joy in it. We’d just be getting what was coming to us. But if, by faith in Jesus, we simply receive the free gift of God (v.5) … there is reason for confetti and cake! We’re getting a bonus we didn’t earn. We’re getting a wage we didn’t work for. We’re getting Bill Gates’s salary instead of our own. For, even if we could earn some favor with God … our wage would be miniscule in comparison with what Jesus has earned for us! So working for your heavenly paycheck is like choosing forty hours a week at minimum wage instead of inheriting the Walton family fortune! So do you know what I say to that forty-hours-a-week? I quit!

And here is something even more vital to mull over: Not only is it ludicrous to imagine that we could make God love us more than He already does; not only would it be insane to trade in the Wal Mart fortune for a job at the Snow Cone Shack … it is also rather crazy to toil for the wages that Paul says our works actually do earn. Yes, our works actually do earn a wage – the wage of death! That is what Paul says in chapter 6.23: “The wages of sin is death.” And that is what our works ultimately amount to: sin. For all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64.6). And therefore, when we read that “to the one who works” (v.4), “his wage is … credited … as what is due”, we are not reading a good, Midwestern saying about the value of hard work. We are reading a death sentence! Our works are sin. And therefore the "wage" that is “credited … as what is due” is death! So I quit!

February 16, 2010

UPDATE: Personhood Mississippi

Signatures gathered. Press conference today! It looks as though the citizens of Mississippi will, indeed, get to vote to determine whether or not human life should be defined, statewide, as beginning at fertilization.

Click the link. Thank the Lord. And pray for the upcoming vote!

February 15, 2010

In case you're wondering why I've posted four times today ...

We're feeling a little cooped up. Disconnected from the outside world. Plus, it's still hard for this southern boy, even after 8 winters in Ohio, not to go running for the camera when it comes down like this!

Nearly 15 inches on the ground. 3 ... 4 ... 5 more inches by tomorrow?

"Where then is boasting?"

When I lived in Kincannon Hall, during my sophomore year of college, I had a full page magazine advertisement cut out and hanging on my wall. The entire page was pink, with the simple words 'NO BELLYACHING' written in white letters in the middle of the page. I don’t remember for sure, but given the unique message and background color, I think it must have been a spot for Pepto Bismol. At any rate, I evidently thought it was quite clever (though I haven’t always obeyed what it said!).

But I’ve been thinking that maybe a new sign is in order for this college student turned 30-something pastor. I need a sign (more in my heart than simply on my wall) that says, in just as memorable a way as that Pepto add, something like: 'NO BOASTING'. For that is a necessary message for me … and one that the apostle Paul proclaims in Romans 3.27. After explaining that men, women, girls and boys can never be made right with God based on their own merits; that men, women, girls and boys have no plea before God except the righteousness of another person (Jesus); that salvation comes only to those who admit that they are moral failures and rest in Jesus alone to save them … Paul makes practical application by asking: “Where then is boasting?”. Answer: “It is excluded.” Boasting is absolutely barred from the Christian life!

In other words, people who understand the gospel of free, unmerited, un-paid-for, undeserved grace are the last people in the world who should ever even think about boasting about anything. More simply: Christians are the last people on earth who ought ever to be in the least bit prideful!

Does that sound obvious? Of course it does. But it must not be as obvious as we think it is … or Paul would have no need to have brought it up! Indeed, though the folly of boasting is obvious, Christians still do it all the time. Simply listen to or read a wide range of Christians talking (or preaching, or Facebooking, or tweeting, or blogging, or Google buzzing) about some ethical issue and you will invariably find that many of them (though not all) write and/or speak from an imaginary moral high ground. They belittle those who are in the ethical wrong and never once give any hint that they are embarrassed at their own struggles with sin. Indeed, Christians often speak without any hint that they are thankful to God that the same grace that He has poured out on them is available to the dead-beat dad, or the homosexual, or the radical feminist, or the politician.

So much of public Christian discourse (especially when it comes to morals) falls afoul, it seems to me, of Romans 3.27 (sadly, you can probably find some examples of that even in searching the archives of this blog). That’s not to say that public discourse on moral issues is somehow faux pas, or that Christians should shy away from it. It’s just to say that Christians ought to sit down at the coffee table, or belly up to the keyboard, or step up to the pulpit with a lot less swagger and a lot more humility than is often done.

Having said that, this very article could fall into the same boastful moralizing (ironically, on the issue of pride!) if I didn’t now say that the reason I chose to write about Romans 3.27 is because I myself desperately need reminding that “boasting" is "excluded” for those who truly believe the gospel of free grace for desperate sinners. Why do I need to hear that? Because, even when I am outwardly humble, I would often like to walk around with my head held high, feeling like I am doing a good job, and being a good person. In fact, just this past week, as I was preparing to preach on the blessing of feeling forgiven, I stopped to examine my own heart. And what was inside was something like: ‘Well, I really like feeling like I don’t need a lot of forgiveness. I’d rather feel like I’ve had a good week than to really blow it so that I need to preach this point to myself.’ Translation: ‘I’d rather feel worthy than forgiven. I’d rather feel like God is pleased with me because I’ve had a good week than to wrestle with the simultaneous high and low of realizing that nothing but what Jesus has done can make God pleased with me.’

And then I was a real jerk on Saturday night … and God forced me to have to preach Isaiah 1.18 to myself on Sunday morning. But I’d have rather boasted – not out loud mind, you. But I’d have rather preached Isaiah 1.18 thinking how badly everyone else needed those words of comfort and forgiveness rather than being in desperate need for them myself. But, mercifully, God allowed me to fall back down to earth. And this morning, as I opened Romans 3, it all made sense. God would rather me live in Romans 3.27 than to have what I call ‘a good week’.

The Road to Bethlehem

UPDATE: Due to the massive amounts of snow we've been receiving ... this series has been moved back to March 7-28 to ensure everyone has equal opportunity to hear all four messages.

Coming this February [now March] ... a four part message series on the book of Ruth. The widow from Moab was converted to faith in the one true God on a road somewhere between Moab and Bethlehem. And her story puts the rest of Old Testament history on the road to Bethlehem, too. Hopefully, Ruth's story will set you and I on that path as well. Join us as we study and worship together in this fascinating little book.

February 8, 2010

Worth Praying for

Some very good friends are in a frenzied signature-gathering countdown. Personhood Mississippi is proposing an amendment that would define personhood, under Mississippi law, as beginning at the moment of fertilization - effectively making it illegal to abort a fetus (ahem, human being) at any point during a pregnancy. This could be a watershed moment, not only in the great state of Mississippi ... but in opening some floodgates nationally. So I am asking you to pray.

The political process is as follows:

A. Collect 89,000 signatures by February 13 to get the issue on the upcoming ballot.
B. Work (and pray) like mad so that the amendment passes when it arrives on the ballot.

So, even if you don't live in Mississippi, or have never even been there (forsooth!), your negligence at having never even set foot in 'the promised land' can be forgiven if you will pray for the good folks at Personhood Mississippi. They need 2,000 more signatures by Saturday ... and a few hundred thousand votes if and when the amendment makes it to the voters' ballots.

For a littler more on this very, very grassroots effort (which God is blessing amazingly), read this blog post by our friend Heather Duley. It will make you laugh ... and cry. It will spur you to pray for Personhood Mississippi, and about the possibilities in your own state. And it will teach you some other spiritual lessons along the way, too!

Thanks for praying.

There is None who Understands

“There is none who understands” Romans 3.11

I’ve never given a great deal of thought to this particular part of Paul’s long and devastating assessment of human-kind. The highlights of Romans 3.10-18 have always been, for me, the more broad statements:

*“There is none righteous, not even one”
*“There is none who does good … not even one”
*“There is none who seeks for God”

I think my emphasis has probably been fairly correct. The sentences above really are the main things. But this week I noticed verse 11a, which seems to be a sub-point of those other, more over-arching statements: “There is none who understands”. It’s actually quite an important sub-point! Why? Because Paul would have us remember that it wasn’t just man’s moral capacity that was shattered by Adam’s fall … but his ability simply to understand as well.

Let me put that in bold print so that it stands out: It was not simply man’s moral and ethical capacities that were lost when Adam fell – not simply his ability to obey God and do good. When Adam fell, men and women everywhere also lost their ability to properly understand God. Or, as Paul said it in chapter 1: “They became futile in their speculations” (v.21) and “God gave them over to a depraved mind” (v.28). So I’ll say it one more time: It’s not just that man’s heart was blackened by the fall, but his mind was warped as well! ‘Not one of us, apart from Christ, even so much as thinks rightly’ Paul says. “There is none who understands.”

Now let me insert this word of explanation. Paul is not simply referring to people who aren’t very quick-witted, or who are slower learners. He is asserting, rather, that the astrophysics professors at Harvard and the literary scholars at Oxford are just as warped in their spiritual understanding as the crack addict on Liberty Street. Just because you understand how a supernova works, or can appreciate the short stories of William Faulkner does not mean that you understand God. In fact, some of the world’s brightest secular people stumble over the simple gospel message as though it were written in Mandarin Chinese. So I repeat: “There is none who understands”. Humans minds, be they ever so sharp in science, literature, engineering, home economics, carpentry, pedagogy, or political theory are, without the help of the Holy Spirit, futile when it comes to understanding the things of God.

And even as followers of Christ, our understanding is still so very imperfect is it not? Surely this is the cause of many of the doctrinal differences between various groups of serious minded, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians. Our minds – just like our hearts, and wills, and moral capacities – are still in the process of being renewed by Jesus. We are not yet morally perfect. We all know that. But it is important to remember that we are not yet mentally perfect either!

These facts are vital to take into account … and on a number of fronts. Let me mention three applications that flow from Romans 3.11a:

1. Prayer. The men and women with whom you share the gospel day by day have warped minds. So, while that calls for clarity and simplicity in your sharing of the gospel, it also means that no matter how clear and simple you may be, they ain’t gonna get it without God supernaturally clearing away the fog. I am sure you have experienced this if you’ve shared the gospel very often. Your friend can understand how to extract files from a zipped internet folder, but the message of the cross draws blank stares. So you’d better pray that the Holy Spirit doesn’t leave the explaining up to you by yourself!

2. Humility. If we are still, even as believers, hacking our way out of the dense cloud that original sin has hung over us … then it means that we probably don’t see everything as clearly as we’d like – and neither do our Christian friends who are on the other side of the fence about baptism, or election, or the end-times, or you name it. Maybe they don’t see as clearly as they should. But then again, maybe neither do we! So let’s not be quick to throw stones … seeing as how the mental haze of Adam’s fall often prevents us from seeing exactly where and why we are throwing them.

3. More prayer. Don’t just pray for those people with whom you share the gospel. Pray for yourself. You’re still lingering on the edges of the mental fog bank, remember? So that means that, whenever you go to the Scriptures, you are still liable to miss some things, or misunderstand some things. You still need the Holy Spirit’s illumination even as a Christian. So ask for it whenever you hear, speak, or read God’s word!

February 1, 2010

God is God. Period.

“Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” Romans 3.4

Paul wrote these words in response to a hypothetical question: ‘How can God be a good and faithful God when He leaves some people in their unbelief?’ In other words, shouldn’t a good God rescue everyone? Why does He let some people remain in unbelief and death?

Paul didn’t directly answer the question … partially because no human being (not even a divinely inspired one like Paul) can fathom all the depths of God’s purposes and reasons for doing what He does. I don’t know why God chose to save me while others around me perish in their sins … except that I know it has nothing to do with me! And Paul would have said the same thing. That is a large and central reason why he did not answer the question directly.

But there may have been another reason he responded the way he did: “Let God be found true and every man be found a liar”. Remember the question Paul was replying to: ‘How can God be good and faithful when He leaves some people in their unbelief?’ It would appear that Paul detected a certain unhealthy tone when certain people asked that kind of question. For there is a way to ask an honest question; but there is also a way to ask the very same question in an accusing, arrogant tone. Depending on your wording tone of voice, the intent of one and the same question can be very different:

‘Paul, I know God is good. How then, in light of God’s goodness, do we understand the fact that millions of people die and go to hell?’

or, on the other hand

‘Paul, you talk about the goodness of God. If God is so good, why does he let people die and go to hell? That doesn’t sound good to me.’

Do you see the difference between the two ways of asking the same basic question? If so, then Paul’s response in Romans 3.4 makes perfect sense. Possibly the folks posing the question posed in Romans 3.3 were doing so in an accusing tone: ‘Some of God’s own people (the Jews) failed to believe and died in their sins. If God is so faithful, how could He allow that?’ And when we come at God with questions like that, presuming that we ourselves have taken a higher moral ground than God Himself (‘How can a supposedly good God do _____________?’) … then Paul’s response, throughout his letters, is uniform: “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.”

In other words, Paul says, God is God. And therefore, by definition, everything He does is right, good, and true. And if what God does seems not to be right, good, and true … what that means is not that God is not true, but that we are not true; that our estimation of right and wrong is misshapen; that our understanding is upside down or sideways. ‘He’s God, period. And we’re not’. That is what Paul is saying.

Does that sound harsh and inhumane? That God, no matter what He does, is true … simply because He’s God? It’s actually one of the most freeing truths in the universe! God is God. I am not. And therefore, I don’t have to waste my time critiquing and scrutinizing (a la Romans 3.3) everything that happens in the light of what I think God should be like. I just have to know what God actually is like (namely, true) … and then view life’s quandaries underneath that reading lamp. I don’t have to solve all the why’s that tie unbelievers in knots. I just have to trust that God is God and that, therefore, whatever happens happens at His behest, and is according to His good pleasure, and is protected by the umbrella of Romans 8.28, and is (by definition) good, right, and true.