Monday, July 23, 2012

Striving after Holiness: A Warning

Make every effort [Strive] to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. - Hebrews 12:14

"Holiness" is perhaps a misunderstood concept today. In the world's imagination it might conjure up images of arcane religious rituals, "holier than thou" judging Christians, or for the more theologically literate, the "holiness laws" of the Old Testament. Of course holiness is quite a bit more than these simplifications. The first thing Christians believe about holiness is that God is the epitome of it; we are exhorted to worship the Lord "in the splendor of His holiness" (Psalm 29:2, 96:5), the part of the Jewish temple where God's Spirit dwelled was the "Most Holy Place" (Leviticus 16:2).

The second thing about holiness is that where God is holy, we are not. Holiness is the concept of purity or separation from anything false or evil; it is the essence of God's "other-ness" to us. So God warned His people that only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place once a year and with the greatest possible precautions, or he would die (Leviticus 16:2). Likewise when God descends on Mount Sinai to give the law, the Israelites don't want to go up to meet Him or even hear His voice; they are literally scared to death. (Exodus 20:19) It's from God's holiness, His perfection, that we get the "fear of God". Sin separates us from God because it makes us decidedly un-holy, and God's perfect holiness means that He can have no communion with darkness. (1 John 1:5)

But the good news about holiness is that God can make us holy! He commands us to be holy on the basis of His own holiness (Leviticus 19:2), and those who know Him (nevermind the "before the creation of the world" part for now) were chosen to be holy. (Ephesians 1:4) God's ability to do this comes from Jesus, who died for our sins so that He could make His future bride (the church) holy. (Ephesians 5:24) And, in fact, those who believe in Jesus get the Holy Spirit to dwell in them (Romans 8:9) like it did in the temple of the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 6:19) to make us holy.

Believe it or not, that surprisingly well-referenced gospel presentation was completely accidental and I just wrote it as an introduction to what I was getting at. I like listening sermons from The Village Church in Texas at work, especially the preaching of Matt Chandler, who is one of the most gospel-loving men I know of and who has made a mission of trying to awaken a generation of apathetic Bible-belt Christians to authentic faith. this month he's been doing a quick sermon series on holiness which I just listened to today.

Maybe it's a bad sign that the first time I really write about Matt Chandler's preaching is when I disagree with it. Most of his latest sermon was great as always, but he may he been a bit careless when dealing with the "how" of pursuing holiness. It's hard to blame him, as he was very conscious about denying the perception of holiness as "cleaning yourself up for God", "you're forgiven in Christ so now work to prove it", or simply "working out your salvation with fear and trembling, hoping you make the cut". The concept of somehow "earning" your salvation by doing good deeds, known in Christianity as "legalism" and which Chandler has called "karma", is common to many religions but antithetical to Christianity and the gospel. (And is the main purpose of Galatians) Sola fide!

While I couldn't agree more with his passion for shaking people out of legalism, he goes a little too far in the other direction, particularly in his preaching through Ephesians 2:1-10. He adopts the Calvinistic view that being "dead in our trespasses" (v. 5) really means being completely helpless, lifeless, even lacking agency. And, he says, even our faith is a gift from God (v. 8-9) so we can't even claim that as our work.* Now, of course, we are unable to make ourselves righteous or holy without Jesus (John 15:5), but an imbalanced focus on "beholding Jesus", the "author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:1-2) can lead to viewing holiness as a passive process that happens to us as we watch Jesus do it. And nothing could be further from the truth.

I would be way, way out on a limb here if I hadn't lived this misconception. For years I struggled to understand the relationship between God's work in us by the Spirit and our own responsibility. (And somewhat still do, a motivation for my ongoing project on God's providence and predetermination) Reassured by preaching like this, I turned the pursuit of holiness into an inward journey to keep "increasing my faith" in God so He would make me holy--after all, if holiness is a matter of fixing our eyes on Jesus, if it's not working we aren't looking hard enough, right?

Not exactly. It's true that holiness is impossible without the power of God, but at the same time we can't expect to attain it just sitting on our thumbs waiting for God to do it. Hebrews 12:14 uses the word "strive" to describe our responsibility to holiness, and my favorite verse on the subject is Philippians 2:12-13: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good purpose." If you just take the first half of this verse it completely sounds like legalism, like we're saving ourselves, but the second half makes the picture complete: it is God who works in you.

Yes, on our own we can't become righteous, but with God it becomes not only possible but certain. It is one of the great mysteries of the gospel that God can do His work in us through our own faith and obedience. How does this work? I'm still figuring it out. Heck, I think part of the point is that we don't know the whole story of what God is doing through our working, so that we can't take any of the credit. I hope to shed some more light on the subject in the coming weeks/months/maybe years.

If you are already following Christ, know that holiness isn't something that just happens to us (though it can seem that way in retrospect) but something to be actively pursued through faith and obedience reinforcing each other. If you aren't (in which case I congratulate you for making it through this), I have one question: what if true moral perfection really existed, and not just as an abstraction but embodied in a Person?

* It should be noted that "And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" in verse 9 is referring to salvation by grace through faith, not faith itself; I don't agree with all of Norman Geisler's conclusions in Chosen But Free, but I trust his ability to translate Biblical Greek)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


I was going to just tack this on to my previous post, but I so liked how it ended that it didn't feel right not to leave it where it stood. My journey through Romans is part of my larger revisiting of predestination, God's sovereignty, free will, and diverse other topics for a more thorough treatment. I almost feel like I could write a book about this subject if I could trick anyone into publishing it. While this work is going on, you can probably expect sparser (but hopefully still regular) updates on this and my other blog.

The Gospel of God, the Power of God

As I was reading my Bible on the express bus to Minneapolis today, I decided to study some Romans. I started from the beginning and read 1:1-17, the last two verses of which go like this:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
And, as scripture sometimes does, it really jumped out and hit me in the face this time. I went ahead and broke down these verses in my head to savor them all the more, and I'll try to share some of the joy I found in them with you.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel...

Paul is really fond of his "for"'s, especially in Romans, which serve tie the various parts of his letters tightly together. Whenever a verse starts with "for" you have to look back at the context. In this case, the context is simply Paul's desire to preach the gospel to the church in Rome. (v15) It's not entirely clear, but it sounds like he means the church specifically, in which case you may wonder, "Hasn't the church already heard the gospel? Why not preach it to those who haven't heard it?" It's true that this is pretty unusual for Paul, who saw himself as laying the "foundation" of the church (1 Cor. 3:10) and would prefer not to build on someone else's foundation by preaching the gospel where it has already been preached. (Romans 15:20) So this must be some special, burning desire of Paul's, motivated by his love for them which he was just expressing. And, of course, even those who already know and believe in the gospel need to keep hearing it and preaching it to themselves to "keep the faith".

For it is the power of God...

This is the part that grabbed my attention. The gospel is not just about the power of God, it is the power of God. This should be encouraging to you when proclaiming or sharing the gospel to others: it isn't merely some words, a collection of facts on how to be saved, four spiritual truths, &c. There isn't just power behind it, it is the power of God, innately. We can expect that when the gospel is preached, the power of God will therefore show up in amazing ways; there is no better example of this than the book of Acts.

For salvation...

And what is the purpose of this power; what is it doing? Saving people. The gospel is for the salvation of sinners; it is God's power making this salvation freely available through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It's also worth noting some things that this power is not for--it's not for our comfort or so that we might live a happier life, it's not a set of guidelines on how to be a better person, and it's certainly not just so that we can feel better about ourselves.

To everyone who believes...

This is the same free offer of salvation offered in John 3:16, 6:47, &c: if you repent and believe, you have eternal life in Christ. This is the essence of the gospel and what sets Christianity apart from every other religious system. Say what you will about whether we freely believe, or how God's grace enables us to believe, or your we are predestined to believe, but the offer is still real and standing. Eternal life is not found in obedience to rules, a perfect state of mind, or inside yourself, but in a Person who is God.

To the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Another important topic Paul addresses in Romans besides the raw gospel is the fact that it's for everyone. The fact that God was offering salvation to everyone instead of just His chosen people, the Jews, was still surprising to people at this time (Acts 10:45). Paul will later go on to reconcile this free offer of salvation with the Jews' special part in God's plan, and this fragment hints at their position. Similarly, Jesus made it clear that His first order of business was preaching to the Jews (Matthew 15:24,  10:5-6), yet God's mercy is also sufficient for everyone, not just the Jews (15:27).

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."

The gospel is not only power of God, it is also clear evidence of His perfect righteousness. But not only His righteousness in a distant, unapproachably holy sense like on Mount Sinai, but a righteousness that is "from faith for faith", which is one of the cooler qualifiers in the Bible. It sounds like not only is this righteousness counted to us by faith (the verse ends with "The righteous shall live by faith"), but also it is "for faith", which leads to more righteousness, which leads to more faith, &c. It's a positive feedback loop of eternal life!

Sometimes the gospel feels to me like a late-night infomercial. Just when you think you've understood how great a deal it is, God says, "But wait, there's more!" Not only does God loved you and have a wonderful plan for your life, not only does He have a way for you to be saved from your sins, not only does it produce righteousness and enact God's redemptive plan for His created work, not only is it His power for salvation...I don't even feel right ending that sentence because however good you think the gospel is, it is better.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

True Repentance

"Faith decision". "Asking Christ into your heart". "Hearing the four points and praying the sinner's prayer". "Repentance". Call it what you like, but it's a pretty big deal in American Christianity, especially in the evangelical community. And why shouldn't it be? It's when we cross from death to (eternal) life, the beginning of our relationship with God, the impetus for another ecstatic party in heaven! (Luke 15:7) This is the big mission of [Campus] Cru[sade for Christ], which I was fairly involved in during college. Considering this a direct application of the "great commission" in Matthew 28:18-20, they hold numerous outreaches and mission trips during breaks, equipping students and teaching them to share their faith with others. The number of decisions to follow Christ is carefully noted for recordkeeping purposes.

Now don't get me wrong; evangelism really is important and there really is rejoicing in heaven when another of God's lost sheep is found. But I think it is possible to focus too much on the importance of one critical moment and lose sight of the lifelong, difficult journey that follows it. I remember hearing a story from a friend at church camp when I was about twelve or thirteen about when he accepted Jesus and felt chills running up and down his body. There is so much focus on one moment of repentance, but repentance is not just one moment. As Luther put it in his first thesis, "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ...willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance." That decision to follow Jesus you made years ago--was that it? Are you still living by it? Do you need to make it again? The thing about eternal life is that it goes on...forever.

This also gives a glimpse of insight into how our salvation can be God's doing when we freely choose to follow Him. Jesus taught that the mark of true, saving faith is that it lasts until the end (Matthew 10:22, Mark 13:13, &c.). Yes, we can choose Jesus, but it's a choice that we need to keep making every day, every moment. True repentance is not simply a choice we make (or repeatedly make) but becomes a part of who we are, and only God is capable of making this change in us, of making us people of faith (Ephesians 2:8).

This is a preview of a post (or, more likely, series of posts) going over predestination yet again. My notes for this one are about twice as long as this post, so I think it's going to be an adventure.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

On Giving to the Church

I posted a response to a thread on a Christian discussion forum of sorts started by someone who felt liberated by giving their tithe to other charities rather than their church, which they saw as spending lots of its money on unnecessary luxuries. As I've started my first "real" job at Seagate and acquired a good deal of money to put to use, God has been teaching me a lot through my personal study and a mini-series from my church about living generously (not just with your money, but your whole life--their phrasing is "Time, treasure, talents, ticker"), which has been really encouraging. I wrote a reply, the first paragraph of which turned out to be a decent summary of some of this teaching. I'm posting it in censored form here and not linking back to the conversation to avoid boasting about the amount.
In sermons on generosity, my church has described the tithe as being like training wheels. It's a good goal to strive for, but if you tithe to the church or to other organizations and think that you've paid some kind of debt you owed to God, you're missing the point. God made everything and He owns everything. The money you don't give isn't yours to do whatever you want with, it's His gift to you. I currently budget X% of my income for giving (that will probably only last until I get married) and the fact that I'm keeping (100 - X)% for myself bugs me sometimes, even though it mostly goes to taxes and basic needs. I'm not trying to boast, but simply to show the attitude God has given me towards giving.
To add to this, one other thing that bugs me is becoming proud about how much I give. (None of which, remember, belongs to me in the first place) Hear me clearly: you have no 10% debt to pay to God, giving any part of your life doesn't score you brownie points with God or magically make you a better person. Our acts of righteousness are "filthy rags" before God (Isaiah 64:6) and without love, any amount of giving is meaningless, amounting to nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3) We are declared righteous by faith, not by anything we do (Romans 9:30-31). I could spend all the money I give on exquisite headphones instead (which is incredibly tempting as I type it) and God wouldn't be thrown into a panic or have any losses to recoup. He doesn't need our money. He just wants us.

This is a very distilled summary of what God has been teaching me. Since I'm trying to make this blog all interactive and stuff now, I'll solicit opinions: would you like to hear and converse more on this subject? (Especially people from Hope who just got out of the mini-series)