Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Discipline of Dying

Over the past year (or maybe even longer) I've been working on writing here and there when I have the spare time. The end goal: a new book on the Sovereignty of God. I'm excited to announce that it's nearly complete, but that's not really the point of my post today. Today, I share an excerpt fresh off the press.

For about 3 months now, there has been a chapter left hanging. Incomplete. Wrapped in an enigma I not only failed to solve (which is never my aim) but I could not even begin to explore it. The chapter was on Moral Imperative, and the question: in view of God's absolute sovereignty, why even try?

Finally, it hit me (I think, at least. I'll let the comments on this post be the judge as to whether it makes the final cut). The reality is that we do not try. We die. But, lest that seem a mere platitude of escapism, do not forget that when we die we do. There is no trying in God's law, there is only doing. Be perfect. Be holy.

I wish that believers everywhere would find far less comfort in the limited success of their efforts to obey. Instead, when faced daily with the realities of our iniquity, we ought to learn the discipline of dying to self—self-motivation, self-sufficiency, self-reliance—and living in Christ's power. We ought to "carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:10).

When we believe the lie that we, as Christian people, are somehow empowered now to live perfect lives, the reality of our present life lived in a dead carcass not yet regenerated will ultimately lead to disparity and defeat. We are, even after confessing Christ and receiving the Spirit, defeated by the moral imperatives of Scripture. And here, once again, in our present weakness we find strength only in God's power—His absolute sovereignty to work in and through us.

We know the folly of believing that one can earn salvation without the atonement of the cross. We are helpless but for His mercy. How much more foolish, then, after one's acceptance of Christ's atonement to go on in the Christian life pursuing moral imperative by our own will? How blinded have we become to take the same imperative which once drove us to our knees at the foot of the cross and later attempt its perfection within ourselves. No, the truth of the Gospel is that we must continually return to the cross, "to proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26) so as to confess with the Apostle Paul that "I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10).

The Spirit's work in sanctification is not unlike His work in justification. Whereas we find righteousness through the imperatives of Scripture only when we die by the Law and receive Christ's imputed righteousness, so too does the Spirit sanctify us by the same imperatives which continually teach us to depend on Him for life. A deep thirst for Scripture is instilled in God's elect as a provision of God with the chief purpose that we find there not instruction for how to now succeed as Christians, but a perpetual conviction that we must "die every day" (1 Corinthians 15:31).

That is the discipline of dying. Scripture drives us to our knees begging for God's mercy more than once in the Christian life. Life by the Spirit begins in utter dependence on God and therein it must also continue.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

John Calvin - Man of the Millenium

I'm starting a new book--a gift from my mother-in-law who is in every way familiar with my Calvinist bent--that is a biography on the great reformer's life. John Calvin: Man of the Millennium is a biography by Dr. Phillip Vollmer designed, as the cover tells me, to be a "family read-along." However, as I read it, I'm rather glad I don't have my family at my feet listening along.

Already about 100 pages into the book, there is nothing disgraceful or deplorable about the book that I should denounce it. However, I haven't found much to praise either, except for Vollmer's fond adoration of Calvin and very apparent respect for the works of his life. In general, as most biographies are, I suppose, the book is valuable largely for one such as myself who is totally unstudied in Calvin's life, but don't look to it for a riveting read.

That's right! Shocked? As one who has developed a theology that even I must admit is distinctly Calvinist, taught it in the church, and argued vehemently for God's sovereignty on this very blog, I am markedly unfamiliar with Calvin himself. This fact, by the way, is why I commonly cause eyebrows to raise by saying, "well, I guess most would call me Calvinist, but I don't use that term." Not that I'm decidedly against it, just that I'm not always sure what is meant by the term in the mind of the one applying it to me and I suppose I should be sure that I know what is meant first, too.

I've already determined that one of my next reads will have to be Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. And, by now, you might ask yourself what in the world I have read. Well, Romans... a lot :-) Not to mention the 65 other canonical books that accompany it. In a previous post, The Layman's Library, you'll notice most of my study includes reference material, commentaries, and of course, audio learning from BiblicalTraining.org.

All in all, I look forward to enjoying the relaxed pace this weekend of reading my book and escaping work for three days. I do look forward to what I'll learn from it. However, I'm fully aware that as Monday winds down I'll be good and ready for an MP3 lecture on Old Testament Theology, or at least a heated theological debate.

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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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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rejoicing in God's Sovereignty

I was at breakfast this morning with my accountability partner, doing a quick Bible study and spending time in prayer as we usually do. This morning was not uncommon from many others. From the moment I woke, the pressures of being a business owner in this economy were weighing on my mind. I drove to meet Jeff, half thinking about the study we would be doing, but mostly thinking about how I would find the business to keep alive in the coming months.

I sat down with Jeff. We talked back and forth about how our weeks were going. We shared the trials that we were facing in business and the challenges that we have in finding new contracts. After the catch-up, we opened to our reading for the day. We've been reading through the history of Israel for about 2 years now, starting in 1 Samuel. Today, by what some might call coincidence, we happened to be on the last chapter of 1 Kings.

No self-respecting Calvinist can be unfamiliar with this text. It's an oft-cited text in the academic debate between God's permissive and His direct control over evil in the world. However, this morning it was not that facet of this account that stimulated me the most. As we read together through the story and discussed what God had to show us from the text, the lesson became obvious: God is in control no matter what. No matter what prophets (or business analysts) a person listens to, what evil motives shape their decision, or even how they disguise themselves in the world, God's purpose will stand.

Ahab did everything humanly possible to defy God's plan and decree that he should die. Dressed in commoner's clothes, Ahab was still killed by what the narrator calls a "random" flight of an arrow. But random as it may have been to the archer and to Ahab, God's plan was sovereign over all.

Where do I find joy in life when life seems stacked against me? Nowhere else but in the comfort that God is indeed working all things for the good of those whom He has called (Romans 8:28). Jeff and I laughed as we recalled the many times in our own respective businesses that we had struggled and strived to earn business by all conventional wisdom, only to have seemingly random chance bring us into contact with our next major client.

It was well after 8:00 when we parted ways for the morning and I headed off to the office. My mood was notably different than just an hour previous. Has God promised me wealth? No. Has He promised me a life without trials? Actually quite the opposite. But has He promised to meet my needs? Yes. I rejoice knowing that God is totally sovereign, and I cannot imagine having hope in His providence if He were anything less.

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