Sunday, April 19, 2009

Contextualization of Scriptural Teaching

Much has been written and argued over the contextualization of "the Gospel" in the past century of global missions. The issue, not to oversimplify, really hinges on how malleable God's word is to fit our cultural backgrounds. But, aside from the Gospel contextualization is the often-overlooked issue of contextualizing other, non-salvific teachings in Scripture. What does the metaphor "salt of the earth" really mean? I hardly think it meant anything related to ice, snow, or ice cream to any of Jesus' original listeners in the arid countryside of Judea.

While that certainly is a comical example, there are far more serious instances where a failure to interpret the Biblical texts within a right understanding of the original context--including time, culture, setting, and audience--can bring a grossly varied application of scripture. If I dare attempt to cite all examples of this common in the Church today, I very well may go on forever. And, unfortunately, I still will probably not find every one.

Instead, I'm writing today namely out of retrospect on the lesson that I prepared over the past week and delivered this morning: James 3:1-18. The NIV's rendering of the text has helped to propagate the common misunderstanding that "not many of you should presume to be teachers" (James 3:1). Fearful of the judgment that may befall a teacher, especially one who presumes to be a teacher when in fact they are not called by God, can lead to the most riduculous paranoia of teaching a children's Sunday School class or, God-forbid, even pursuing a career in public education.

But, what did James have in mind when he penned this text? Was their a signup sheet for Vacation Bible School teachers with too many names on it? In 50 ad, I hardly think so. So what does the text tell us? The KJV, I'm afraid, does a far better job rendering the literal meaning than the NIV. "Be not many masters." In essence, James writes to the congregations, "Don't be a bunch of teachers."

If you study and understand the setting in which this letter from James was written, we can more accurately understand the meaning before applying it directly to our own culture without proper exegesis. Churches in James' day were small, intimate gatherings. By Paul's instructions for orderly worhsip in 1 Corinthians 14, we get a picture of free-form instruction. Many people were allowed to stand and address the congregation. So what is James saying? You're not all teachers. Some of you should sit and listen.

Listen and learn. It's become easy for me, as I deepen in my own personal study, to critique a sermon as I listen rather than learn from it. As more and more Americans intellectualize scripture and become sure of their own understandings, we can shift from the mindset of an active participant in Bible study to an all-out indomitable expert their to offer our unsolicited feedback and waiting eagerly for our next turn to talk. James says, "don't be a big bunch of teachers." Fear the tongue, and allow that fear to keep it in check.

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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.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Faith & Deeds: Your Window to the World of Works

I am preparing this week to teach on the much debated passage, James 2:14-26. As I come to the text looking for God to show me what He has to say (and not what my own theological bent has to say) on the topic, the first thing that He has made clear to me is that my window on the world is--as everyone's--tinted.

If I ask a room full of evangelicals, "What do you have to do to earn justification through Christ?" There will come a swarm of answers affirming that I must "do" nothing but rather I must merely believe. The mantra of "grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone" would no doubt be touted, perhaps while fists pound in palms (ok, maybe not that extreme). Yet, it's clear that this passionate stance against works-based salvation is a product of our window on the world (and of course the baited way in which I formed the question [grin]). The shaddow from which we in the Evangelical movement are fleeing includes puritanism, fundamentalism, and a unique flavor of late-modern legalism that all amount to a great distaste for "works" emphases.

Martin Luther, too, rose against the "works" emphasized gospel of his day with a similar passion. So much so, in fact, that he is on record as calling the book of James an "epistle of straw" and perhaps even challenging its canonization. Luther was surrounded by a type of Pharisee-like legalism so strong that he polarized to the other extreme. That theme has been a back-bone of protestantism in general that sticks with us today.

Even more important to understanding the scripture at-hand, however, is not our own tinted windows on the world, but that of the Biblical authors that stand seemingly at odds: Paul and James.

Paul, a pharisee by training, faced largely the false-teaching of Judaisers and addressed those fallacies head-on in his epistles. This is made especially clear by his emphasis on the Law and circumcision. When we read Paul's words, "not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:9), bear in mind the boasting he describes in Romans 3:27, "Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith." In fact, Paul's opposition to the legalism of the Judaisers is very closely paralleled to Luther's opposition to the Medieval Catholicism of his day.

James, however, peers through a very different window on the world and on the Church(es) which he oversaw. Likely a carpenter like his father, uneducated, and close companion of Jesus during His earthly ministries, James (in exact agreement with Paul) saw the transformed life a crucial aspect of a justified person's faith. James faced a movement of apathy and intellectualism in the church--one that disregarded the actions of the body and focused on the knowledge of the mind. This is made especially clear by the works that James cites in his discourse on faith and deeds in chapter 2: giving to the needy (verses 15-16), surrendering all to God (verses 21-22), and trusting the Lord (verse 25). James does not enforce that justification is by works in the sense that Paul defined works--following the Law and being circumcised. In fact, James is recorded in Acts 15 as speaking out against legalism for the converted Gentiles.

So, getting back to our own window on the world, ask yourself: what positions does this "works based salvation" that I oppose really include, and what might it not? More importantly, what is James really telling his readers in their day and in their context... and what is he not?

Oh, and just so I don't leave a loose-end untied, Luther himself later resolved that "Faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is never alone" as he came to understand that faith in Christ will certainly manifest in works.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Devil Made You Do What?

This Sunday, I have the privilege of teaching from James 1:13-18. The title that was assigned to my lesson is "The Devil Made You Do What?" Although culturally iconic, I'm not sure it accurately represents the dilemma represented in the text. To anyone who has ever noodled on the topic of God's sovereignty, the issue that James addresses here could be more aptly stated as, "God made you do what?"

Having just introduced in the previous verses a counter-intuitive approach to trials in which the suffering reader should rejoice that God is producing character in such a way, James now moves on to a very strongly related matter. It's no accident, in fact, that the same word translated as "trial" in verse 2 is also translated "temptation" in verse 13.

In the many character-building experiences we endure through life, we have two options: follow Christ or follow our sinful nature. To react to any situation in a way unworthy of Christ is to sin. So, naturally, if God sends trials, is it God who tempts us to sin? James addresses this misconception head-on: NO!

As many of us logical creatures might desire a well-developed explanation of how this can be so, James instead appeals to a different argument: the character of God. He does not delve into dangerous re-definition of terms or create slithery distinctions of the permissive vs. active will. To James, there is no need. God's character alone answers the question, all that's left is our faith to accept it. Faith, that is, in who God has revealed Himself to be, not in how God has (or hasn't) revealed Himself to perform.

Once we accept God's character as the under-girding principle that answers our question, we're left with one shameful realization: who we are in contrast to His revealed character. The very next verse draws the damning conclusion that temptation does not, in fact, come from God but from our own sinful natures. We men, the ones created pure and yet determined to spoil it, stand inquiring of God, "why did you put me in the situation where I could sin?" when all along the ONLY one in the entire universe that is totally undeserving of any allegations is God Himself.

The fact is, we can't even face good times, let alone trials, without burning with sinful desires. We don't need God's help to find excuses to sin. It's not as though the trials that He brings us in any way deepen the effect of the fall in our lives. No, in all situations we are damned to sin. Praise be to God, the Father of the heavenly lights, who gives us a good and perfect gift in His Son.

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