Friday, February 26, 2016

CHRISTIAN OBEDIENCE IS NATURAL AND GLAD

Do you desire to honor God in all your thoughts, words, and actions? Is this even a good thing to desire? Is it a good thing to desire for others, too? If so, then where do you get the motivation and how do you motivate others? Is it ever good to use manipulative, deceitful, or impure motivational tools? Since the ends don't justify the means, we all need to be sensitive to the pressure away from good motivation. This applies in marriage, parenting, friendships, and life in general.

The following quote by James Denney--a pastor and seminary professor of a century ago, who couldn't imagine a sermon that wasn't a declaration of the love of God--declares that there is a motivation in the love of God that is so life-giving that no other motivation is necessary.

“It is through the assurance, given to faith at the cross, that so far as doing the will of God is concerned, a new and living way has been found. It is not the law in its old legal form—the law of statutory injunctions and prohibitions—which is to generate goodness in the sinful man; it is the law glorified in the atonement. The whole inspiration of the Christian life lies here, and it is an inspiration, not a statutory requirement. Nothing is to count in the life of a Christian which does not come with perfect freedom from this source. This explains the extraordinary emphasis which St. Paul everywhere lays on liberty. Liberty is the correlative of responsibility; man must be perfectly free that the whole weight of his responsibilities may come upon him.” -The Death of Christ, by James Denney, pp.190-191

The whole inspiration of the Christian life lies here.


Do you agree with Denney that the whole inspiration of the Christian life lies in the cross and its transformative power? Are you persuaded that the law was honored and glorified in the atonement and nowhere else? When you think of Christ, do you think of the weightiness of the law and of Christ gladly carrying it all for you? Are you persuaded that in Christ you are perfectly free from all obligation to do good? Does even just hearing of that possibility make your heart sing and  soar, or do you perhaps suspect and expect some laziness?

Let's get practical. Are you as a Christian bothered by your lack of motivation to do what is good? Are you bothered by such in other Christians? Is your solution to look at what is good for you and them to do and then to seek to do it? If so what is behind the motivation to seek to do it? This is the point of contention. A reason to act takes one of two general forms: either of obligation (have to or need to), or of gratitude for love or blessing received. You may declare that there is always a mixture of both. That likely is the human experience. But don't we all know intuitively that such is impure and akin to a business transaction? Business transactions are good but not in the place of a non-business personal interaction. We all may do this and do it often, but let's not pretend that God encourages it, as such isn't good. I suggest that the way to escape this polluted motivation is to take James Denney's advice and identity the problem as a lack of assurance in the power of the cross. Declare as true--and thank God often for it--that Christ in His death carried all your obligation to do what is good and that you are perfectly free, having no pressure of obligation. Denney is declaring that if you have any obligation to do good then your sense of responsibility to always do good will be diminished and impoverished. And that certainly isn't a good thing. If you are not convinced and think that you and others need at least a little pressure of obligation in order to be serious about doing what is good, then I have two questions for you. First, how is that going for you--I mean, compared to Christ are you obedient? And second, does God consider your imperfect performance as good?

I suggest that James Denney has clearly identified what God declares to be good and pure motivation--one that is untainted with human pride, competition, and failure. I also suggest that this motivation has sufficient force behind it to move me to proper action--done naturally and gladly. Jesus did say something like that: "He who forgiven much (and while perceiving it) loves much." It is crucial to notice that love in action isn't automatic, perception is necessary for it to flow naturally, freely, easily, and gladly. Lastly, I suggest that if Denney is correct here, then other sources of motivation are impure and thus not from God; they are worldly.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

SLAVERY TO JUDGMENTALISM

Yesterday two USU students stopped in Oasis looking for a book. Enjoyable conversation ensued. I suggested to the woman that the way to be free from irritation toward her boyfriend--who was browsing--was to judge him by perfection, because if she realized that he had to be perfect (sinless) and yet wasn't, she wouldn't be surprised by his failures but would rather relax. She agreed that such was true, but then stated that she couldn't do it because she would then need to judge herself by perfection and her pride wouldn't allow that. Hmmm....
Could it be intuitive that the way to freedom from pride (love of self) is to judge self and all others by moral perfection? Could this be what the New Testament is all about--a new mindset about goodness and life?
"Whoever looks into the perfect law that brings liberty, and keeps looking there, will not be a forgetful hearer but rather an effective doer, and will be blessed in what he does." -James 1:25

[Note: posted on the Oasis FaceBook page fall 2014 the day after the conversation.]

Monday, February 22, 2016

BLOGGING JAMES: WHAT IS JAMES ABOUT ANYWAY?

The letter of James contains much strong language about temptation, sin, law, judgment, and good works. I live in a part of Utah were 90% of the Anglo population is Mormon. Less than 2% would attend a Catholic or Protestant church. The Bible passage that Mormons here are lightning quick to quote to Christians who mention that eternal life is a gift, is found in James 2:17 and 26: "Faith without works is dead." James doesn't mention the death or resurrection of Jesus directly and may only mention explicitly the person of Jesus twice, and then only concerning his authority as Lord. Martin Luther ranked the books of the New Testament based on how clearly he could see the gospel in each one. Of course Romans was at the top of his list, and it may be no surprise that James was at or near the bottom. He famously said the letter of James was an epistle of straw, by which he meant that a Christian could get very little spiritual food by reading it. Many have wondered why James is even in the New Testament. Many have found it as dry as Luther declared it to be. Has it troubled you? I suggest that the fact that it is even in the Bible at all should cause us to pause and meditate much on the possibility that we are missing somethingmaybe even reading James upside down. The very early Christians must have seen significant value in it for it to still have had sufficient residual honor to be included in the canon long after their clarity had been lost. What lens were they reading it through that subsequent generations down to our day have not noticed? I suggest that James Denney, a theologian's theologian of a century ago, may have noticed something. as he wrote the following about the letter of James.
"If the name of Jesus is less frequently mentioned in James than in other New Testament writings, there is none which is more pervaded by the authority of His word." [all emphasis mine] 
 
Hopefully we will explore what James Denney meant.

James: The Glory of the Law or A Serious Call to Human Obedience?


Is the letter of James focused on the honor of the moral law, including the surprise that the mind focused on that honor naturally produces right behavior in the individual? Or is James focused on communicating God's seriousness about people stopping their bad behavior, with of course a secondary lesson that a person who sins once is a lawbreaker [with the unmentioned implication of a subsequent need of salvation]?

I would like to set the context for James in the prophet Isaiah, who declared 750 years before James in a Messianic chapter:
"The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness sake, 
He will exalt the law and make it glorious." 
-Isaiah 42:21
If the exaltation of the moral law is important to God, do you think it should be important to us? If God wants it to be important to us, do you think that neglecting or forgetting it is a big deal? Is it something He would like us to notice and take seriously? I would suggest that all of these are true and that all of James is about this point and its application. I also suggest that there are big surprises hidden inside this approach to James. If you happen to check in here over the coming months as I blog monthly through James, you will notice a very heavy dependence on the gospel of Isaiah. Words in James will be seen through Isaiah's use of those words, and, surprise of surprises, God's glad righteous favor will often seem to appear out of nowhere and be on center stage. James is an official messenger of the Lord of righteousness and grace. Would the Lord not have trained him well and inspired him? How strange then that his letter would not be about grace. Let's be honest and have the courage to assume that ALL the confusion is on our part and stop blaming James (and thus also God?). Let's patiently seek to find the keys he left for us that we might see and celebrate God's righteous generosity in every passage. I suggest that James is about the meaning of the gospel and not the events themselves. We will explore the interwoven connectedness of law and grace—and also their razor sharp distinctions. 

Martin Luther rediscovered the apostolic teaching of righteousness by faith alone. Certainly we shouldn't think that Luther rediscovered all the diamonds of apostolic teaching that had been buried under church tradition and cultural bias. Could it be that there are many other blessings hidden in Luther's shadow just waiting for subsequent generations to notice? Many such have come to light. If the above approach to James happens to be correct, and I am convinced that it is, then one of the first surprises in James is a new understanding about what temptation is abouta way that removes all pressure to make excuses for failure, and that makes restoration simple and joyful. Is that possible?

What Is Temptation About?


"But every man is tempted, when  he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed."    -James 1:14
This verse declares that temptation is being drawn away from something. What is that something? Is it about being drawn away from striving for right behavior or being drawn away from right moral thinking (true religion)?  I suggest that it is the latter and that such is the theme of all of James, though the former seems to be what I commonly hear and read from Christians and non-Christians alike. One of the themes that will be commonly explored here is the connection between thinking and behavior.
An agnostic USU student friend complained to me that women were commonly blamed for the sexual temptations and problems of men. I suggested to him that such thinking was false because temptation was about being drawn away from something, and thus all fault was in self. He was shocked and intrigued, stating that he had never thought or heard of temptation as being "from something" and had only been aware that it was "to something." He liked the idea.
I suggest that James is all about proper moral thinking (true religion) that naturally results in good works (proper behavior) without partiality, competition, selfish ambition, judgmentalism etc. (verses 3:17-18) Our problem is that we think that James is exaggerating when he declares:

  • that the one who looks intently into the perfect law [the standard that only perfect obedience is good] that brings liberty, and keeps looking there [never looking away, even for a moment]—not being a forgetful hearer but an effective doer—he will be blessed in what he does. (verse 1:25)
  • that the one who keeps the whole law [always perfectly does what is right] and fails in only one small point, is guilty of breaking the whole law [is equally a lawbreaker with all others, including coveters, gossips, and mass murders]. (verse 2:10)
  • So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. [the bold words are commands in the plural in Greek, meaning that they apply to all people. They apply always.] (verse 2:12)
  • Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, [judging a brother by any standard other than perfection] speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.(verse 4:11)
Only recently have I surmised that James is about holiness not justification or evangelism.

Conclusion: Life is About Living in Goodness.


Do you want to do what is good? Then think what is good—that partial obedience is disobedience—that only perfect obedience is good. Doing this will leave you naked of any possibility of credit or hope in self and of any sense of need to pressure others to perform since they are naked like you. It will also turn you outside yourself for all hope and security. But isn't that where Christ is with the gospel of grace waiting compassionately and gladly to satisfy your every need? How did James know that and how did he know that we would know it, too? Welcome to the celebration of life in God's surprising goodness.

Friday, February 19, 2016

HUMILITY: Is It Good? Do You Want It?

"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, 
bearing with one another in love."
-Ephesians 4:2 NIV
True or false:
1) It is good to be humble.
2) It is good for you to be humble.
3) You want to be humble.
4) God wants you to be humble more that you want it yourself.
5) You want to learn humility alone and don't want God to send you helpers.
6) Number 5 is good.
7) God gives you family, friends, critics, and circumstances to reveal your need for humility.
8) It is good to realize your need to grow in humility.
9) You need to grow in humility but don't want to see your need for more humility.
10) It is good to have an initial response of thankfulness toward God and those God sends your way to help you learn this lesson.
11) Your typical initial reaction to criticism, reminders and trials is glad thankfulness.
12) You want number 11 to be true for you.

13) You are really glad that God's favor frees you from the pressure to have to be perfectly humble.

Here are two applications:
1-Admission. "If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think tell him the first step.The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think that you are not conceited, it means that you are very conceited indeed."
-CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, p 128

2-Prayer. "Dear Father in heaven, thank you freeing me from all condemnation by your favor in your son's death in my place, and calling me to see that all my weaknesses are the place where your strength is made perfect. Thank you that humility is good, but I admit that I am too weak and prideful to learn it by myself. Thank you that all my critics and trials are blessings from your hand of grace to help me see your goodness more clearly. Please send to me all the critics you think I need and on the schedule that you think best. Thank you that you will always be tender with me. In Jesus' name. Amen."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

AN AGNOSTIC'S SURPRISE

In August 2014 I spoke with a woman in her twenties who said she believed in God but did not believe in religion. Her boyfriend was nearby. At the end of our conversation I asked her the following three true or false questions that elicited a big smile of surprise.
Me: It is good for me to let your boyfriend get away with sinning.
Her: False
Me: It is good for me to be his judge.
Her: False

Me: Then what should I do?
Her: (puzzled) I don't know.
Me: How about this one. It is good for me to let God be his judge.
Her: Now that is true.
How did she know these things and why did it surprise her to connect the dots?
If you dislike my third question to her, then what do you think is the connection between mind and action? Does resting in God's judgment of others lead us to passivity or to glad involvement in their lives to point them to our God who is righteous and lavishly generous?

[Note: The above was posted on the Oasis FaceBook page shortly after the event.]

Monday, February 15, 2016

CONFUSING BIBLE PASSAGES—Is God Confused?

Have you ever read a Bible passage that seemed to be confusing? What was your response? Did you think or say something like, "I wish the Bible was more clear in it's explanations," or "I wish the Bible were not so confusing," or "I wish that God had written this out more clearly," or "It is obvious that there are paradoxes in the Bible." Can you relate to these statements?
I suggest that there is another way to approach confusion about the Bible that the following passages suggest.
"To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight,to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." -Proverbs 1:1-7
"It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter." -Proverbs 25:2
"Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us." -Psalm 78:1-3
Do you see the other approach? The Bible is not like a chemistry textbook. It is full of the wisdom of God, the true knowledge of God, the moral understanding of who God is—all set in the historical context of God revealing Himself to self-focused, dull, conceited, self-righteous, foolish people whom He loves. He wants the foolish to become wise and He honors as His dear children those who fear Him and enter the narrow gate into His way of wisdom. Entry is conversion—a beautiful transformative beginning—but it is only the beginning of a life of discovery and experience of the richness, beauty, and multifaceted goodness of God. Life is not a quiz and the Bible is not a handbook for proper behavior to avoid God's anger. The Bible is the revelation of God's goodness. Our proper behavior flows naturally out of how deeply we perceive our weakness and moral failure in light of His great sin-bearing love. "He who is forgiven much loves much." Love is full of surprises—all is not known at first. A Riddle is meant to draw us in to discover more of God's goodness, and has clear meaning for one who has once untied its knot. 
Thus that other approach is to declare that God had spoken clearly and ALL the confusion is in my understanding—God is a good communicator but I am a poor listener. Oh how much foolishness we Christians still have and need to sweep out of our minds. Do you have the courage to embrace this way of thinking? "Riddles of the wise" God calls them. Do you have the patience to read the Bible seeking to overcome your confusion (and human confusion generally) by noticing the keys that unlock the riddles?
It is sad and ironic that readers commonly (usually? nearly always?) blame God for the confusion? Why not blame self? Blame-shifting is the all too frequent human response of insecurity. No wonder we don't see clearly and argue so much about the Bible. Let's seek to unlock the riddles together rather that beating each other over the head with them.
Coming soon will be monthly articles on untying Bible knots. One Riddle is so significant that it will get a separate monthly article on it and its surprises. That riddle is the parable of the sower. It has caused many a Christian to waver in assurance of salvation. If God is full of grace and truth why would that happen? Could it be that we are reading it upside down? 

Friday, February 12, 2016

WORKS RIGHTEOUSNESS

True or False:
You feel close to God when...
1. You are praying.
2. You read your Bible regularly.
3. You are regular at church.
4. You have fewer trials.
5. You are sinning less than usual.
6. Your pastor preaches a good sermon.
7. People around you aren't mistreating you.
8. You are happy.
9. You remember that God loves you, and sent
His son to die for your sins to free you from all
guilt and shame, and to begin, maintain and finish
your relationship with him so that you can be free
to love everyone without worrying about what
you need to do to get God to smile on you.
Is the Christian life about moving closer to God or about remembering and celebrating that He moved into maximum closeness to us at the cross?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

WHAT DOES GODLINESS MEAN?

When you hear that someone is a godly person what comes to mind? Do you think of a person who is generous, loving, kind, patient, and very consistent in prayer, Bible reading and witnessing? When you think of ungodliness what comes to mind? Is it something like sinful behavior? Is there even another way to think about godliness?
Godliness is a translation of the Greek word reverence. It is easy to look it up yourself. To me there is a clear distinction between reverence and godliness. Is this true for you too? All or all but one Christian I have asked to describe godliness have given a description similar to that abovea description of action or behavior. But isn't reverence simply focus on the goodness, honor, majesty, and glory of God?
Behavior flows naturally from what a person is thinking about in the moment. The fruit of the spirit and much more good flow freely from a reverent mindset. The works of the flesh flow freely from an irreverent mindset. Do you agree?
The real question is this. When the New Testament uses this word godliness (Greek: reverence) is God wanting us to think about and evaluate behavior or mindset [remember that mindset always results in some kind of word or actions]?
"Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart." Let's seek to think God's way.

Monday, February 8, 2016

WHERE IS YOUR SECURITY?

"For in Him [Christ] all the fullness of Diety dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;" -Colossians 2:9-10
Every true Christian is complete in Christ, which means that they lack nothing and nothing can shake their identity in Christ. And since Christ is above all other authority, no authority can take away from that completeness. Neglect, misunderstanding, slander, mistreatment, or worse by anyone else cannot shake that completeness. True? Why then is it so common for us Christians to get impatient, offended, proud, angry, and worse with each other? Why this touchiness and defensiveness if my completeness has nothing to do with me or my critics? The whole issue is about setting your mind on Christ as your completeness. Every bad reaction you have is rooted in distraction, ignorance, or forgetfulness of your identity in Christ.
Are you persuaded that this is true? God loves you and delights to help you learn this lesson of love. All your critics and all your troubles are HIS messengers to help you notice and keep focused on your identity in Christ. The last time you were disagreed with, criticized, mocked, or neglected by a fellow Christian, did you embrace such as grace from God, giving Him thanks for your and your critic's completeness in Christ? Did your critic receive a warm saintly welcome from you and maybe even an invitation to expand on the criticism? Did you embrace such as a good opportunity for YOU to learn more about YOUR own weaknesses? Did you see God's smile of delight on that dear saint WHILE you were being mistreated? Or, did you think in terms of your own rights, and respond defensively? The truth about your completeness in Christ while you are being a jerk to others, is also true of others WHILE they are being jerks to you. True? If you thank God often that this is always true for all Christians, it will be more natural for you to remember it in the heat of the moment.
Practice remembering your security in Christ and watch your reactions change.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

HOW DO YOU DRAW NEAR TO GOD?

There are TWO ways to draw near to God: through law (Hebrews 10:1) and through Christ (Hebrews 7:25). Since God is good he must have a reaction against all irreverence and unrighteousness. For you to draw near through law in a good way means to have no lack in your goodness. But we all have violated goodness and are law breakers. Thus God can't welcome us in that way without wrath.
But God is goodwhich means that he is righteously generouswhich means that he doesn't want us to be under his wrathwhich means that he as the creator is responsible to provide resolution to that problem. Therefore he delighted to open a new way, one of substitutionary deathJesus' death as the death of all mento honor the law fully without any help from us. Thus we can draw near God apart from our goodness and solely in his goodness.
The Jews hated Jesus because they pridefully thought God would welcome them drawing near to him through partial obedience to law. Jesus in many ways clearly declared that they could not come to God unless God provided a new way for them to draw nearthrough the pride-shattering death of the lamb of Godthrough pure grace. The Jews were finally so enraged that they killed Jesus their king and lord.
But this revealed God's great surprise: that those who killed Jesus were the first ones invited into the new way of drawing near into God's celebration of life.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

WHAT IS CHEAP LAW?

A friend asked for more clarification on what is meant by cheap law. I suggest that clarity on this point needs to be shocking. Cheap is the label for something that is inferior in quality. Sometimes that is seen as a good thing if you are looking for a deal at a yard sale. But in the world of personal relationships cheapness conveys insult and violation of what is good. Call a friend, a gift, or a woman cheap and see what reaction you get. This label is insulting, rude, or even crude. God is good and will only relate to his creation in a good way. This means that he isn't stingy, he won't sell himself, he won't lower the standards of goodness, and the surprise is that he is generous. God and the human conscience both testify that perfect love is always required and that evaluation by the standard of perfection is good.
To think or say that God doesn't require perfection, or to say that partial obedience is somehow acceptable to him, is to cheapen (or make inferior) his goodness. This is human pride attempting to mock God in order to get some credit (glory), but God will not be mocked. The person who does this is actually mocking himself and lying about God.


Why was Old Testament Israel often called a harloteven said to be chasing and paying the men? And why after they claimed to have cleaned up their act did Jesus still call them adulterous? It was because Israel taught and acted like God sold his love in exchange for their payment of cheap imperfect obedience. They even had the gall to declare that they were obedient and God's judgment was really his inability to take care of them.
God is good; his law is perfect and good; his favor is good. But it would be prostitution for him to cheapen his standards and sell his favor for a little polluted partial obedience. To think that he does this is to do it oneself. Cheapness in relationships is prostitution. Human pride loves prostitution, but God hates it with a passion. God gladly offers his favor to all, but that favor must be received in a good way: either by perfect obedience to law or perfect freedom from lawby rest in the finished work of Christ.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

ARE YOU ADDICTED TO CHEAP LAW?

I am. I took the first step of admitting it and for years have been inviting friends to remind me of perfect law anytime they desire. Today I extend that invitation to all people everywhere. Please remind me that perfect law is pure food for the soul and leads to freedom and growth in grace. Don't hesitate to remind me that the only reason I sin is because I have forgotten perfection and filled my cup from the polluted fountain of cheap law (lowered standards), which can only dull a man's senses. So check my drink as often as you like. Call me and quote James 1:25 and 2:10 to me whenever you want. Preach to me Luke 11:52 where Jesus castigates the experts in Mosaic Law because they had taken away the key of knowledge from Israel. They hadn't entered into life and they were hindering others who were entering. Perfection is the key that unlocks every door. It shatters the pride of man and reveals the glory of God in the finished work of Christ. It makes both justification and sanctification to be all about Christ.
Are there any other recovering cheap law addicts out there?