Sunday, 25 November 2012

of Spurgeon and Sanctification

Then I will tell them plainly, 
‘I never knew you. 
Away from me, you evil doers!’ 
(Jesus; Matthew 7:23)

As a part of my devotional reading, I have been reading through a ten-volume collection on the sermons of Charles Spurgeon. It has been a fascinating trip with a man that has been called by many, “The Prince of Preachers.” Sometimes I have wholeheartedly embraced what he wrote; other times I have struggled with what I’ve read, but in the end, I have come to appreciate Spurgeon.

With the first part of this blog post I am going to take some liberties and call Charles Spurgeon my “guest blogger” with what is really only a part of an introduction to yet another of his sermons. It was enough, though, to make me sit up a little straighter, re-read the section over again, and say, “Hmm.” I will then address a couple thoughts of my own. Here’s what Spurgeon shared with me earlier today:
Grace makes a great difference in a man, when it enters into him. How vain, then, are the boasts and professions of some persons, who assert themselves to be the children of God, and yet live in sin. There is no perceivable difference in their conduct; they are just what they used to be before their pretended conversion; they are not changed in their acts, even in the least degree, and yet they do most positively affirm that they are the called and living children of God, though they are entirely unchanged. Let such know that their pretensions are lies, and that falsehood is the only groundwork that they have for their hopes; for, wherever the grace of God is, it makes men to differ. A graceless man is not like a gracious man: and a gracious man is not like a graceless one. We are “new creatures in Christ Jesus.” When God looks upon us with the eye of love, in conversion and regeneration, he makes us as opposite from what we were before as light is from darkness, as even heaven itself is from hell. God changes man. He works in him a change so great, that no reformation can even so much as thoroughly imitate it; it is an entire change – a change of the will, of the being, of the desires, of the hates, of the dislikings, and of the likings. In every aspect the man becomes new when divine grace enters into his heart. And yet thou sayest of thyself, “I am converted,” and remain what thou wast! I tell thee once again to thy face, that thou sayest an empty thing; thou hast no ground for saying it. If grace permits thee to sin as thou wast wont to do, then that grace is no grace at all. That grace were not worth the having which permits a man to be, after he receives it, what he was before. No, we must ever hold and teach the great doctrine of sanctification. Where God really justifies he really sanctifies too; and where there is the remission of sin, there is also the forsaking of it. Where God hath blotted out transgression, he also removeth our love of it, and maketh us seek after holiness, and walk in the ways of the Lord.
Did you get the same, “Hmm” as I did with this? No doubt there will be those who are ready to throw out the red flags of objection to some of what Charles Spurgeon said here, and perhaps especially when it comes to what he called, “the great doctrine of sanctification.” However, before we throw those flags, perhaps we would do well to note that “Sanctification,” as it appears in the New Testament, is interpreted in at least two different ways.

First, sanctification stands for the already accomplished work of God as applied to the salvation of the individual Christian. Jesus’ cry from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), comes to mind. As Christians, you and I are already sanctified. There is but one, and one only, “condition” on our part; it is not a “work,” rather it is that we “believe” and thereby personally accept the gift of God through Jesus Christ. That is our only part in it; believe (and thereby accept Christ). If we have this relationship with God, we are sanctified already. Conversely, if we do not believe, then we have not accepted God’s gift, and we are not sanctified (that is, we are not saved).
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” asked the jailer of Paul and Silas. They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16: 30-31; NIV).
Secondly, sanctification also refers to the ongoing process in which the Spirit actively equips individual lives to actually “be” morally upright and blameless in a world that is full of sin, temptation and depravity. It is, we could say, the “litmus test” through which the church discerns the work and evidence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of its own. I believe that it is in this second fashion that Spurgeon is using the term “sanctification.”

What are we to make of professing Christians, who continue to live immoral (or what we perceive to be immoral) lifestyles? Ultimately, I think that is what Spurgeon is asking. Have you ever wondered if such people were really saved? I confess that I have, and especially when taken with Scriptures such as Matthew 7:23 which we quoted at the beginning. Should we even concern ourselves with such things? If not, then why would John write this:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15; NIV).
Is the question of how we know who really are “Sheep” from those who are only  “Wolves in Sheep’s clothing” discernable and answerable? Spurgeon seems to be saying that it is. In keeping with the “do not judge” of Matthew 7:1, I do not believe that Spurgeon is judging in a condemnation sense, for only God can condemn, but he is judging in a discernment sense, as we are all called to do.
“For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17; NIV).
No doubt there will continue to be more questions than answers on this subject, and I would say to you, that is OK. In my readings I have seen many questions such as these:

  • "Is moral sanctification experienced as a gradual process?"
  • "Is it a second work of grace?"
  • "Does it imply sinlessness?"
Theologians have wrestled this one through volumes and volumes of scholarly texts, and I don’t dare venture into that arena. Maybe we don’t even need to know the answers to those questions. Perhaps, when all the dust settles, it is enough to simply say with that old children’s hymn,
“Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”
Perhaps that’s what it means to be a child of God. Perhaps that is where faith comes in. Perhaps that’s enough. Can we rest in that?

Charles Spurgeon quote: Spurgeon’s Sermons, Volume 3, Sermon VIII, “The Dumb Singing.” Reprinted by Baker Books, 1996.

Monday, 19 November 2012

A New Reformation?

I still get asked all the time why I do not "go" to church. Sometimes it seems like a weekly discussion. Well, it happened again just a few days ago. People see some measure of spirituality, but they don't see church, that is, the traditional institutional church.

Have you ever experienced that? How do you answer people who ask these valid questions? If I were in their shoes, I'm sure I would be asking the same thing. Maybe you are in those shoes too and are asking similar questions. What can I say to try and create some sort of understanding as to what's going on in the church today?

Lately there is no shortage of books by a host of excellent authors. I could point you to several of them right now, but that could be a little overwhelming as you begin your quest to seek understanding. Or, I could start you off with this excellent little ten minute video. It's been around a while, and though I do not agree with everything in it, I still find it a great synopsis of what's happening in the "new reformation" that is the church today.

May God bless you and give you peace as you seek Him amidst your quest for understanding.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Note to Self: Heed Own Preaching First

With today's post, I am going to go out on a limb and wear my heart out on my sleeve for all to see. I am going to take a chance and be personal and completely transparent. The tears, I might add, are real.

I don't know if the person involved will ever see this post or not, but without naming names, I want to share a recent event that is ripping me apart inside. I hope it is received in the spirit in which it was intended, but if not, then I ask your forgiveness. But before I share the cry of my heart, please bear with me as I first share a thought from the New Testament that is amazingly relevant to me right now. It is this:
"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do ... For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing ... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7: 15, 18-19, 24; NIV).
While the Apostle Paul wrote those words about himself, sometimes I am convinced that he wrote them on my behalf. They are so word perfect, it is almost as if I had personally dictated them to Paul. Does he know me, or what?!

Ever feel like, when you take a step forward in your spiritual pilgrimage, you soon feel like you've had the legs kicked out from under you and you end up crawling backwards three steps? Why is it that, as Paul says, "the things I want to do, I do not do, whereas the things I do not want to do, these I do?" What's with that?

I will spare you all the gory details, but this week I responded rather harshly in an email to someone. Yes, I still believe that they were in error, and my view of that error has not changed. But that's not the point. Unfortunately, the way I responded was anything but graceful, and that is the point. Unfortunately, the way I responded, it might as well have been the devil himself who sent that email. Afterwards I feel absolutely sick about it. What was I thinking? Apparently I wasn't thinking at all. God forgive me.

Me, who preaches love and relationships, apparently forgot to preach to myself along the way. Me, who has often been critical of what I perceived as lovelessness in others, was equally loveless. Oh, "what a wretched man I am!" Since when did two wrongs ever make a right? Am I beating up myself right now? Yes, I sure am! I don't know, but maybe that's a part of repentance.

Romans 2: 21-24 (NIV) comes to mind:
"You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: 'God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'"
What is interesting is that I just quoted those same verses a few days ago in of Compromising Our Witness. Apparently I stumbled over my own blog post. Groan. Is God trying to say something to me through this experience? I'm sure that He is, but what is the lesson? Lord, open my eyes.

The first lesson to be learned is that I would probably be wise not to respond too quickly to any email. While he was still quite young, I remember my son once saying, "Words are like toothpaste. Once they're out of the tube, they're impossible to put back in." Out of the mouths of babes! Apparently I forgot that lesson. Likewise, once that email "send" button is clicked, it is impossible to pull the message back. Too late; sucks to be me. The same holds true for any online activity; once the "Post" button is clicked, I hope you know what you're doing, because you're committed. 

Think Before you Send. Is it Gracious?

I think I need a reminder like that taped to my computer monitor. Maybe I will make one up today. Certainly it is consistent with where I want to be; I want to always be gracious. Certainly it is consistent with Paul's instructions too when he said,
"Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Colossians 4: 5-6; NIV).
Well, there you have it; I messed up. Why do I tell you of my shortcomings? There are actually two reasons. One, that we may all learn from my failure and hopefully not repeat it, and two, because of something James said,
"Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:16).
Where do I go from here? I would hope it is to pray one for another a bit more than we typically do. The next order of business on my part is an apology. I hope this person ends up being more graceful to me than I was to them. I hope they see fit to forgive me. God help me.

Peace and Blessings.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Postscript: I shared this with a friend as a prayer request. Her answer back blessed me immeasurably; may it bless you too. (With her permission) here it is:
"Where do I go from here?" Right where you are, my brother. Right where you are, in Christ with us. Will, Look at that? What you ask? Look at that testimony of Love! He only does that with His own, His DNA children, not a servant, not a slave, but His son. Well, no matter how that apology works out on the other end, you can only apologize, and then it up to that person and Father to work in that heart. I'm sorry Will, but you must get new mirror, the one you have is broken. I do not see a wretched man, I see Christ. Yes, a new mirror is definitely called for to see your Reality. It is an honor and great blessing to call you my brother forever.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Thoughts on the Infamous 666 n. a system of foretelling the future, based upon the supposedly mystic influence of numbers” (Gage Canadian Dictionary).

I’ve never put much weight in numerology before, and I still don’t. But in reading the Scriptures early this morning, I came across a few verses that made me think about the subject again and of some of the many ways that some individuals have twisted unrelated verses to mean something that I doubt was ever really intended by their authors.

Having said that, and at the risk of venturing into a place that may at first glance border on numerology in the eyes of some, I saw something in the pages of my Bible; something that made me sit up and say, “Hmm.” How I ran into these four verses in the same sitting, I still don’t know, yet here they are.
“Now the weight of the gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents of gold” (2 Chronicles 9:13; ESV). 
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66; ESV). 
“The sound of an uproar from the city! A sound from the temple! The sound of the Lord, rendering recompense to his enemies” (Isaiah 66:6; ESV). 
“This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of man, and his number is 666” (Revelation 13:18; ESV).
What do those four verses have in common? They all have, (are you ready for this?), they all have 666 in them. LOL. Yes, at first I actually was “laughing out loud” as I thought about this connection. I said to myself as I laughed, “Look at that, Will, now you’re talking numerology.” Still, it is a serious subject that probably shouldn’t be taken too lightly. Amazing what goes on in your head when you wake up suddenly at 3:00 am and pick up a Bible and start reading.

Now please hear what I’m saying and not what I’m not saying.

What I am NOT doing is suggesting any sort of correlation or numerology between these chapter and verse numbers, that is, the 666’s. All that I am saying is, “Hmm, what an interesting coincidence.”

Why do I view this as a coincidence? Well, besides the obvious chapter and verse numbers, what else do these verses have in common? What they have in common is that they deal with being contrary to God and His ultimate dealings with those who are contrary to Him.

They deal with, 1) money, and lots of it; 2) disciples of Jesus who suddenly no longer seem to want to be his disciples, and so they call it quits and leave; 3) the sounds of the Lord repaying his enemies, both among Israel and the surrounding nations; 4) and finally the mark of the beast, commonly associated with the devil or Satan, which some people will (knowingly or unknowingly) have placed or marked upon themselves.

Having said all that, this does beg an interesting few questions for me. Exactly what is the “mark of the beast?” I’m sure there is no end to the theories on that infamous 666, and in truth, I too have more questions than I have answers. So if it is answers you’re looking for, you probably won’t find them here among my humble musings.

With all do respect to my capitalistic friends, is the mark of the beast somehow tied to money? Does the beast have to do with the financial system? If “money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), and if we “cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24), then it at least appears that we might be able to make that connection. Could money be the essence of the antichrist and the mark of the beast? Hmm, I wonder. Ultimately, as great as Solomon started out, he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done” (1 Kings 11:6; ESV). Yes, it was the women who ultimately led him astray, but I cannot help but wonder how many of those women would even have been around had it not been for his great wealth. Money seems to have been “the root of all kinds of evil” in Solomon’s life too.

Likewise, and again with all do respect to my agnostic and atheistic friends, and especially those of you who once claimed to be Christians, does the mark of the beast have something to do with turning our backs on Jesus? There is a troubling verse that says, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6; ESV). What do we do with that? If we read that literally, it doesn’t sound too promising for those who walk away from Jesus, does it? Paul said, “Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:22; ESV). Is it just me, or is there an apparent conditionality to what Paul is saying here? What are we to make of backsliders? Can they be restored?

Judgment is not just an Old Testament concept; the New Testament also deals with it, as evidenced by what Paul says to the Thessalonians:  “… God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1: 6-8; ESV). To me this sounds a lot like our Isaiah 66:6 text that we started with. God’s judgment is coming, but it is reserved until the end of this age of grace that we currently find ourselves enjoying. One thing about the “age of grace,” and that is that anyone can still respond to the offer of salvation in Jesus. “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2; ESV). In other words, today, here and right now, while we are still in the age of grace, is YOUR chance of salvation. Ignore it, or delay that decision too long, and I believe that you will have all eternity to regret that decision.

I feel that I need to add a word yet about God’s love versus His judgment. I know there are a lot of people today who buy into a form of universalism and who “poo-poo” all talk of the judgment of God, believing somehow that it is not consistent with His love. Personally I don’t buy into that kind of thinking. Judgment is coming, and in my way of thinking, that is perfectly in keeping with the love of God. For God not to judge would actually be very unloving of Him toward those who are His, for could you imagine a heaven in which all manner of evil continues to exist side by side with the righteous? I cannot. The notion of everyone ultimately being saved would be unloving by God; the judging of the unbelieving world, on the other hand, would not be.

Finally, there is (or will be) a mark, “on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666” (Revelation 13:16-18; ESV). Did you notice that? Again, that mark, whatever it is, involves money, as evidenced by the buying and selling.

No, I am not into numerology, but I find it an interesting coincidence to see all those 666’s in both old and new testaments. Is there a correlation between money, turning our backs on Jesus, the judgment of God, and Revelation’s “666” mark of the beast? I will leave that up to you to decide.

Peace and Blessings.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Have You Ever Questioned Church?

Have you ever questioned church? I have a time or two (or a thousand). I remember sharing this with someone once, and they answered back (in standard Christianese of course), "We'll pray for you," apparently believing that I had somehow fallen from grace and was in danger of losing my salvation. Ultimately I left the church altogether, that is to say, I left the "institutional" church, but I never left Christ. To this day, though over ten years have come and gone, true Christian fellowship continues to be an important part of who I am.

I believe that it is precisely statements such as that which confuse many of our brothers and sisters. They struggle with the idea that there could be God-fearing, Spirit-filled, and born-again Christians who do not embrace the need to "go" to church, but rather are content to simply "be" the church. Many just cannot seem to wrap their heads around this apparent anomaly. No matter how much one tries to explain it, for some it still doesn't seem to make sense.

This is precisely why I was so excited to be asked to be a part of the Finding Church book project (ORDER YOUR COPY HERE). It is my hope and prayer that this book may be used of God to help clear up some of those many misconceptions of exactly what Christians "do" or "don't do" on any given Sunday. It is the brain-child of my friend Jeremy Myers who blogs over at Till He Comes.

I am in no way alone in my questioning church; far from it actually. I am one of 36 contributors who have joined together to help make Finding Church possible. Consider these thoughts from the cover of Finding Church,
Millions of people are "leaving church" each year as they begin to question the deeper meanings and structures of gathering together. They are asking a fundamental question of, "What does it mean to participate in church and what would happen if we did something different?" 
They are not abandoning God, ignoring Scripture, or giving up on Jesus. While a few do leave for such reasons, the vast majority report that they leave church to better follow Jesus, obey God, and live out their faith in meaningful and relationship ways. They stop attending church to pursue something more intimate and personal. 
Finding Church explores these stories of people leaving, switching, and even reforming their basic understanding of church. It will open your eyes to a growing trend in culture for people to take responsibility for their faith.
Doesn't that just whet your appetite to pick up a copy of Finding Church and reading some of these testimonies of other brothers and sisters? It certainly does make me anxious to get my hands on a copy. So if you also are questioning church, or if you're just curious as to why so many others do question it, I would encourage you to check out Finding Church. It will be available everywhere on December 1, 2012, just in time for Christmas.

Peace and Blessings.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

of Compromising our Witness

"So, if you think you are standing firm, 
be careful that you don't fall!"
(1 Corinthians 10:12)

There was a rather peculiar story in our local newspaper about a nun with a gambling addiction. It is alleged that she stole $128K from two churches that she worked in. The article says that the theft happened over a four year period, meaning that this particular nun ripped them off to a tune of approximately $32K per year, or if you will, $2,600 per month. The story goes on to say that the theft wasn't even discovered until a new pastor decided to do a routine audit.

I can appreciate the need to do a routine audit, and one can speculate as to why the theft wasn't discovered sooner, or whether or not she was even really a Christian, but for me, that isn't even the real issue here. 

At the risk of sounding legalistic, the real point here is about the importance for all Christians, and maybe especially those in any sort of leadership capacity, of themselves practicing that which they preach. It's not even a case about stealing versus not stealing; it's about doing what is ethical and right. It is about being a functional leader, as opposed to a dysfunctional one. It's about those in leadership being responsible to those who follow them and have put their trust in them, as opposed to being unfaithful and breaking that trust. Finally it's also about facing all the spin-off damage that spews from poor and unethical decisions. Sadly, this case is just one more in the already too long list of fallen church leaders.

We would do well to reflect on what the Apostle Paul said in Romans 2: 21-24 (NIV) when he said,
"You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: 'God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'"
There is an old pat answer that says, "Christians aren't perfect; they're just forgiven." Have we over used that to justify our disobedience to God? However true that saying may be, I think of the damage that is done to the Gospel message, and to our witness, when Christians fall. It doesn't matter if we are talking about theft, adultery or those little white lies; they all lend themselves to questionable perceptions among the unbelieving world toward the church and the Good News that it supposedly preaches. When we fall, the world doesn't care about the reasons why we fell, but "God's name is blasphemed" all the more by them when they see us living in a way that goes contrary to what they understand Christianity to be. 

I remember a story I heard from the biker community a while back. At a rally, there was a Christian biker who had his leather vest with his Christian-themed patches ripped right off his back by a secular non-Christian biker. Why? As the story goes, the non-Christian biker was apparently offended by what he perceived as an immoral lifestyle in the Christian biker, and so he figured that if the Christian was going to live that way, then he had no right to wear a Christian patch on his leathers. 

I find it interesting that, while the non-Christian world often sees the truth of that, many in the Christian community strangely seem not to, or simply have justified away the immorality in their own lives. Please understand that I am not judging anyone, nor am I suggesting that I have my life all together either, but sometimes I think that I have to agree with Brennan Manning who said,
"The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."
Is the greatest cause of atheism today Christians who preach one thing and then live differently themselves? At the very least, I believe that it is a contributing factor. It is about our testimony. It is about the way others perceive us to be, and then making their own judgment call as to the claims of Christianity based upon what they see in us. Do the perceptions of others matter? As I wrote about in Jesus Loves You, But Everyone Else Thinks You're An *#@%*&#^#!absolutely they matter. We are being watched and we are being judged by the world, whether we like it or not. My heart aches when I think of some of the unChristlike things I have done and the potential damage to my witness that followed. Still, God is able to work in our short comings and failures too, and we have to trust that His sovereign plan will still come to fruition, either with us or despite us.
"... so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11; ESV).
As for the nun that stole all that money, all I can really say is, there but for the grace of God go I. Will I judge her for what she did? No, but maybe I would do well to pray for her, just as I would when any one else that I personally know and fellowship with struggles and stumbles. Perhaps, as DC Talk sang, I would do well to ask myself, "What if I stumble? What if I fall?" It sort of changes our outlook on the faults of others when we ask that question, doesn't it? If that happens to me, and I pray it never does, I would hope that others would also gather around, not to judge and shun me, but to pray with and for me. 

God help us to have the mind of Christ in this. Peace.

DC Talk "What If I Stumble?"

"Two things I ask of you, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die; 
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty 
nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise 
I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' 
Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God." 
(Proverbs 30: 7-9; NIV)