Saturday, September 26, 2009

Exclusive Christianity: There is Not Other Gospel

Wow. What a harsh title. Isn't it just typical of some egotistical Christian to think he is the only one who is right. How absurd and closed minded the Church must be to have such a narrow view. With all the wisdom, all the great thinkers, all the various people on earth and differing views which constitute a celebratory diversity for so many modern thinkers... how can we be so backwards to think we're the only people right on the face of this grand planet?

In our study of Galatians this week, we took a closer look at Paul's outrageous claims in chapter 1:6-8. "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel... But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!"

Eternally Condemned? What was the crime worthy of such a judgment? To turn from the Gospel, perverting it from it's original truth. This leaves one of two options: either Paul was inescapably close-minded and unloving, warranting the complete dismissal of this and all his writings, or there must be something crucially important to the Gospel. So crucial, in fact, that to pollute the message with any falsehoods is a capital crime, worthy of death. Which is it?

While we may be under the impression that diversity of thought is good, that perpetual evolution of truth is the ultimate reality, and that any and all claims to exclusive truth must be folly--the reality is that these sentiments are not consistent with a Biblical outlook. Any perversion--modification, addition, revision, or outright restatement--of the Gospel will ultimately fail in one or both of the following ways:
  1. Failure to acknowledge the gravity of our sinful nature, which ultimately leads to idolatry of Man.
  2. Failure to recognize Godís complete character as He has revealed Himself, which leads to idolatry of a created god.

At the core of the issue is God, not man. The charge that Paul, and evangelical Christians today, are in fact intolerant and closed-minded will attempt to center the debate around man. The exclusivity of the Gospel has become an issue of Man's creativity and the assumption that it is our right to determine truth for ourselves. Inasmuch as this is the case, we are already idolaters.

The simple fact is that the Gospel is about God, not man. God desires that all men worship Him, and yet this cannot come about by spreading false testimony about Him--a false Gospel that is, as Paul said, really no Gospel at all.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Apostolic Authority

As we start digging into our study of Galatians this Sunday, the first topic that comes up is one that many would find odd to study from Scripture. Paul, the author of the letter, enters into a lengthy discourse about his own position of authority. In so doing, he describes his independence of the authority of Peter, James, and John--the ones who are called pillars. His claims seem brash, boastful, and downright arrogant. And, in fact, they would be just that if it weren't for one simple fact: he's right!

Apostolic authority is a subject often assumed, but rarely discussed in Bible studies. Why do we care so much what a renegade Jew who traveled Eastern Europe wrote on the matter of Christianity. What gives him the right to dictate for us the doctrines, teaching, and even the very Gospel which cannot be contradicted by any man, nor even an angel from heaven (Gal. 1:8)?

Paul builds his defense first drawing upon the source of his knowledge. Paul was clear in Galatians 1:11-12 that he received this gospel from no man, but from Christ himself. I asked a class, what would have been different if Saul had believed upon hearing Steven's sermon in Acts 7? The answer: he would not have met the qualifications as an Apostle. But when God was pleased to reveal His Son to Paul (1:15), then he received Christ by special revelation from the resurrected Christ.

What Paul so adamantly defends, no other teacher, pastor, missionary, or theologian in the church today can assert. Paul's authority is apostolic. As one who received the gospel direct from Christ, and learned direct from Christ, his office in the church is uniquely authoritative. There were 12 others with the same station in the early church. Some of whom wrote instruction to the early church, along with Paul, that we still have today. And, because of the authority we know to be true in Apostles, this collection of Apostolic writing is counted infallible, as the words of the prophets who came before.

No other Christian thinker, teacher, theologian, clergy, or otherwise has written anything which the evangelical community would consider God-breathed scripture. As we study Paul's authority in the first two chapters of Galatians, then, we study the basis for Biblical authority. This is the reason that we can debate Luther, but not Paul... or that we can dispute Augustine's writings, but not Peter's... or this very blog, for instance, but not the writings of James, John, and the other New Testament writers.

So, knowing the authority with which Paul's words come, how then should we hold these teachings in our own lives? I rarely get more animated in an argument than when someone opposes the clear teaching of scripture. I tolerate direct disagreement from my students gladly, but nothing angers me more deeply than when they refuse to yield to the authoritative, Apostolic writing of Paul, Peter, James, John, or any of those reputed to be pillars.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Bookend of the Decalogue: Thou Shalt Not Covet

I've found it difficult to find inspiration to blog of recent (as you may have noticed). I think one reason has been the content that I've been teaching on. Do not steal. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery (not necessarily in that order). The cut-and-dry topics haven't granted fodder for great blog posts. Perhaps that's a flimsy excuse, but hey, it's better than "I'm just too busy."

Why do I mention this? Because, this week's content is markedly different. It struck me as I was driving today: Paul encapsulates the whole Law in this on commandment as illustrates the Law, Sin, Faith, and Forgiveness in Romans 7. "Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'Do not covet'" (Romans 7:7). There must be something to this. Paul had so many other sins he could have illustrated, but he chose covetousness. Why?

This final commandment in the Decalogue against a covetous heart really book-ends the set of commandments that precede it. It's a summary command, but also an expansion upon the previous so-called "social" commandments. Whereas Paul may have been able to keep his body from outwardly stealing and murdering, he recognized that the tenth commandment made all of God's statutes an issue of the heart, not merely actions themselves.

Why is God so concerned about the attitude of our heart--and, particularly, the desires of our heart? Covetousness is simply a desire for one item/person or another. God knows, and indeed created us so that our desires play a major role in governing all the rest of our being. Our obedience, our worship, our love, our devotion, our acts of service, our everyday behavior--all of these find their root cause in the overpowering sense of desire within each of us. Likewise, adultery, murder, lust, stealing, lying, divorce, abortion, selfishness--all find their root cause in the overpowering sense of desire within us as well.

[As an aside, this makes for great fodder for discussion on the subject of compatibilism]

God gives strict warning in His law--not only in the Decalogue, but all throughout the Law--that Israel should guard their hearts and be mindful of their desires. A covetous person is no longer master over his/her desires. The tempter can exercise control over this person with disastrous consequences. It is for this reason that God commands His people: you shall not covet..."

"O LORD, God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep this desire in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you." -- 1 Chronicles 29:18

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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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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Who's the boss?

Our passage this coming Sunday is the dramatic conclusion to Paul's tyrade about his own authority in Christ. Here's where he finally lays it all out there and tells it to their face, right? Paul says to his rebellious children, "by God's power we will live with Him to serve you" (2 Cor. 13:4)

... In the famous words of Scooby Doo, "Whaaaaaaaa?"

C'mon Paul, where's that "kick 'em into shape" authority you're supposed to have? This Sunday, we will take a closer look at the authority that God gave the Apostles, and that He gives today to leaders in the church. Why is authority granted? How should it be administered. Reflection on Christ's own exhibition of His power on earth reveals a lot. Considering the failures of other would-be authorities in Bibilical history will also be a fun exercise.

Despite the disdain for authority that we have in our flesh, we need to come to God's Word in passages like 2 Corinthians 13 with an attitude of submission and understand the God-honoring reasons for authority.

See you Sunday!

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Monday, February 4, 2008

The inferior church

In the passage we studied yesterday (2 Cor. 12:11-18), Paul charged the Corinthian church in verse 13, "How were you inferior to the other churches?" He goes on to answer his own question, "...except that I was never a burden to you?" As we reflect on what he's saying, the obvious question becomes: why didn't Paul take a collection from Corinth?

Was Corinth poor? We learned earlier in his letter (chapter 9) that they have excess money to share. Did Paul not deserve to make a living from the church in Corinth? In his first letter to Corinth, he gives a lengthy discourse explaining precisely why he had the right to collect (1 Cor. 9). Yet, he claims that to collect from them would hinder the gospel. Why?

As we have discussed, the Corinthians were accustomed to paying their teachers. The better the teacher, the more they paid. Paul felt that if he became a "burden" to the Corinthian Christians, then they may think as though they contributed something of value to the Gospel by their giving, thus enabling themselves to have received it. Indeed, with Paul's refusal to take their financial support, the Corinthians' pride was hurt. They felt inferior to other churches, and yet Paul continues in verse 14 to tell them that he would still not take any offering from them. For, despite their attitude toward wealth, Paul states, "what I want is not your possessions but you."

God wants us to receive his Gospel as empty vessels, fully aware that we have nothing to offer. For Corinth, they wanted to offer their wealth to help God. For us, could it be our knowledge, our skills, our good deeds? God asked Job, blameless as he was, what he had done that God should repay him (Job 41:11). All our knowledge, our skills, even our righteous behavior and any good work is only a gift of grace from God the Father. We are empty vessels that God chooses to fill, and then use. We should rejoice that we are "inferior" so that God alone may glorified.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Visions and Thorns

After two weeks of studying about Paul's boasting, we find ourselves this week in 2 Corinthians 12, where the first half of the chapter tells the account of Paul's supernatural experience in paradise, then immediately follows with the claim that a messenger from Satan has been tormenting him ever since. There will be no shortage of substance for discussion this Sunday morning.

First, what merit do we give to "special revelations" today. There are a host of people (some devout, some delirious) infiltrating the church with convincing tales of their vision or dream. Can any of them be trusted? Surely God is not incapable of intervening in this manner, but what do we make of Paul's obvious refusal to lean on this experience of his in order to validate his authority and teaching.

Next, the most controversial, the "messenger of Satan" that Paul so gleefully accepts. Isn't Satan the enemy? Wouldn't any interaction between Paul and Satan be indicative of the fact that God has abandoned Paul. Don't we equate any semblance of evil with a curse or judgement from God?

As always, we must seek what Scripture has to say about these topics. I look forward to our discussion tomorrow morning (and continued here online if there are any who feel led).

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