Friday, April 3, 2009

Faith That Works

People call me a "free gracer," or even a "cheap gracer," because I have (and still do) intellectually agree that the prospect of a once-believing Christian could die apostate and, to our surprise, be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. Is it the standard? No. Is it to be pursued? No. Yet, I'm convinced that to deny that possibility on a theoretical level would contradict scripture. However, despite whatever theoretical possibilities exist, I am also convinced and convicted that Scripture has no teaching for the encouragement, comfort, or even the invitation to live a life characterized as a "carnal Christian." Faith is not faith which has no works.

Wait wait wait! You JUST said that it's possible.... stop. I am interested in expositing what Scripture has to tell us. To agree with a theory is quite a different thing than to discharge my duty faithfully to teach the Word of God to believers called into His grace for the singular purpose of glorifying His name. We see in each morning paper that it's possible to win the lottery, and yet most of us still head off for work just the same. The person who learns of the lottery and decides to quit the work to which he is called will suffer great loss and live with zero confidence in his future. So it is with the followers of Christ.

Few passages state this truth more poignantly than the text we'll be studying this Sunday, James 2:14-26. Beginning with the challenge to anyone who "claims to have faith but has no deeds... Can such faith save him" (James 2:14)? It cuts to the heart of our theological values in evangelical protestantism: how dare you assess my deeds and ask if I am really saved! (see previous article on Faith & Deeds) But James does dare. And, he does so for the benefit and edification of his readers. Moreover, he does it for the glorification of the name his readers bear: Christ.

James describes faith without deeds as lifeless, "as the body without the spirit is dead" (James 2:26). A body without breath or spirit is lifeless, useless, limp and inanimate. It will bear no offspring, no labor, no worth of any kind. While Luther and the rest of the protestant movement emphasize faith alone, Peter addresses this topic telling his readers to "add to your faith" (2 Peter 1:5). After describing a laundry list of works that result from and add to faith, Peter concludes "they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive" (2 Peter 1:8).

But probably the most debated point that comes from the faith and deeds topic is that of eternal security. In James 2:18 we read a charge that few of us dare to place on any brother or disciple in the faith: "show me." While his readers were presuming upon the grace of God, so confident in it that they thought their actions were irrelevant, James saw fit to sweep that blanket of security right out from under them. "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder" (James 2:19).

If we continue reading in Peter's exhortation to "add" to your faith, we are told to "make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall" (2 Peter 1:10). Who needs to be sure? The one who called and elected us? Certainly not. But if you know a tree by it's fruit, you will know you are His child by your fruit. If you are marked by the Spirit, a seal guaranteeing your inheritance, then you will see the mark in the Spirit's work. If you were buried with Christ in order to be raised again with Him, then you can eagerly await that assured resurrection when you indeed die to yourself for the sake of Christ. But if you presume upon His grace, as a worker would presume upon the lottery, you will forsake the blessing of confidence before God for a blind hope of salvation without any credible evidence.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Last Days - Warning Passages & Eternal Security

Today's post comes in response to a recent question on AskScripture.com where Anonymous writes (gross misspellings corrected):

"[I am] Trying to prepare a sermon for the body of our local church. I feel that [we're] living in what the Bible calls the last days before the coming of lord Jesus Christ. [I am] looking for some Biblical answers that show that many will fall from [their] faith in these days. To show them that this is a very bad thing to do, and [their] salvation is nothing to be playing around with.
Where do I begin. Let's start with basic hermeneutic principle: "I feel that..." followed by "I am looking for Biblical answers that show..." will always yield the answers you seek, but it may not be the answers that the Bible gives. Let me rephrase: if you enter into a study of Scripture with a foregone conclusion in mind and seek only to find the scriptural evidence to build your case, you will succeed in finding what you want to find, but that does not necessarily mean that you found truth.

However, we must all acknowledge that we do this to some degree. Covenant Theologians assume certain facts about Old Testament prophesy. Evangelicals de-emphasize the gospels and emphasize Paul. And Calvinists assume softer interpretations of the word "world" as well as the many warning passages, of which our anonymous inquisitor is expressly interested in.

Lucky for anonymous, I'm not a Calvinist... [clears throat] I'm just reformed [grin].

First, in regards to the present day being the last days. I'm not very certain about that. I do not claim to be an expert on eschatology, but there are several descriptions of the "last days" in scripture, even signs that they are near, and we haven't seen all of them come true. One of my friends and colleagues once commented that for at least 200 years, every generation has believed theirs to be the last. My wife's great grandfather recently passed away, yet right up until the day of his death he was so certain these were the last days that he swore that he would be taken in the rapture. Was the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD the abomination that causes desolation? It's not so cut-and-dry.

However, that wasn't really the basis of anonymous' question, and if he would like to preach a sermon with that assumption in mind, I would not fault him in the least. The more troubling assumption I see is that many will fall from their faith (that's nearly verbatim, but slightly skewed) and that this is an event that the presumably saved members of anonymous' congregation will do via "playing around" with their justified status before God.

Let's look at the text in question here, Matthew 24:9-25. In describing the events, Jesus toggles between specific you's and general many's. In verse 4, He warns His disciples specifically about deceptive prophets. But in verse 5, it is an ambiguous group that is misled by them. Again in verses 6 and 9, Jesus gives specific predictions of what will happen to "you," His followers. The warning of falling away in verse 10, then, is once again generic.

What does it mean that many will fall away, or as the NIV puts it "abandon the faith?" Just as Christ, the stumbling stone, caused many Jews to disbelieve, so will the turmoil and seemingly unjust cruelty cause many to abandon any hope in Yaweh, the god of Israel. But there is no evidence in the text that tells us these who fall away are the elect, having been justified through faith by Christ's blood, now abandoning their own salvation.

On the contrary, Jesus actually speaks some comfort to His followers. He declares that these deceiving prophets will try, "to deceive even the elect—if that were possible." Through my lens of interpretation I assume the unspoken truth here to be that it is indeed not possible. Jesus continues saying, "See, I have told you ahead of time," as though these warnings would be used to prevent His elect from being fooled.

So, anonymous, how would I preach this sermon if I were you? Do not use fear of damnation as a deterrent for sin. Instead, challenge the body of believers to "make your calling and election sure" (2 Peter 2:10). Sure to whom? To God? Certainly not. If you fear the certainty of your eternal security, prove it to yourself by living out the life that only the Spirit can enable. Then, you can face tribulation and even death in the last days with confidence in:
"an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:4-5; emphasis mine).

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

1 Peter 1:3-9 - Rejoice in Your Inheritance

The emperor is out to kill us. It's becoming increasingly difficult to meet in public without the risk of imprisonment or worse. We're losing our businesses. We're losing our minds. And when, OH WHEN, will He return to make it all end? Have we done something to upset Him? Can we do something to appease Him? Are we sure that we're really His? Oh, what a terrifying prospect... my goodness, what if we aren't?

When times are bad, doubts can spiral out of control. In an era where economic prosperity was a sign of the gods' favor, what can a group of Greeks make of their desperate plight that seems to worsen every day. As we read in 1 Peter 1:3-8 this coming Sunday, try to put yourselves in the shoes of a 1st century Christian in Asia Minor. It's not hard if you know how to relate.

While the ancients looked to prosperity and health, today our highly experiential world tells us that God is near to us, and us to Him, when we sense His presence. Quiet times are deep and "spiritual." We pray daily. The mountain-top experiences tell us something is real in this religion. And when that fades? And when we fade? What then?

Peter told his readers there was confidence to be had in the power of God. Adam said it best after class last Sunday when he told me, regardless of your persuasion on free will vs. God's sovereignty, we can't be deceived into thinking that salvation revolves around us and our actions.

Labels: , ,