Online Reading (July 11, 2018)

Marriage: David Mathis has a decent article on the picture marriage is of Christ’s love for the Church.

Church Revitalization: Thom Rainer gives reasons for his optimism about a coming wave of Church revitalization.

Holiness: Over at the Cripplegate, a decent article on how to know you’re growing in holiness when struggling with anger.

Weather: Tropical Storm season begins for us in Newfoundland.

Sermon: TGC word of the week promotes a timely message about how buzz and belief are different things.

Condemnation Vs. Repentance

Perhaps it is not the culture that needs to repent of its failure to be Christian, but Christians who need to repent of being so lax in following Christ.

Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it before the king. And when the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his clothes.
( 2 Ch 34:18–19 ESV)

From a modern perspective, king Josiah’s response in 2 Chronicles seems difficult to understand. After all, the book of the law had been discovered as a result of a massive campaign to rebuild the temple, and move the nation away from its apostate worship of false gods. Wasn’t Josiah already doing the right thing? Wasn’t the nation already moving in the right direction? Hadn’t the government found a correct footing, and wasn’t the worship of the one true God already ascendant again?

In this context, Josiah learns the law of God, and how much the people of Israel had failed to obey God for generations. As we read the context, it seems clear that he is correct in thinking that God would rightly punish Israel for its disobedience and apostasy. Yet this seems puzzling at some level as I read.

I can think of a few reasons for this:

1) I misunderstand because I think I’m owed forgiveness. I find it difficult to understand why God would punish even after people seem to have admitted their wrongdoing and moved to make things right. Yet is this really so hard to understand? Does good work after a grievous sin change the grievous sin at all? I don’t think it does. Part of my issue here seems to be that I have so deeply ingrained the forgiving nature of God into my thinking that I have come to presume upon it. It is not so much that I think Gid is laudible because He is forgiving, but that I think he is NOT laudible if he refuses to forgive, it is as if forgiveness has become my right instead of God’s privilege.

2) My lack of understanding comes also from my failing to see a communal side to my life. Being a 21st century Canadian, I often tacitly assume the (rather insane) idea that I am an island unto myself, and that my own righteousness or lack thereof has no effect on others, and that the fialings of others in no way reflect on me. Of course, I have no right to compel righteousness in others, but how often is the lack of righteousness in those around me part of my own unwillingness to live righteously before others, and to speak of the glories of a life abandoned to God? How is the community I live in to hear of God unless I am willing to speak of Him?

Yet very little of my (admittedly pretty insular) life are without affect by the community I live in. I have food, electricity, heat, and security, all because of the ongoing work of others. The fortress of solitude is not so solitudinous that I lack television, internet, and radio, all produced by countless others. While they do it also for their own benefit, they are working on my behalf. I am also in a better position because, by in large, many of those around me assume at least a basic level of moral action. Few steal, and most respect the closed door on my apartment as a desire to be alone unless I let them in.

I have come to assume that too as my right instead of the grace of God working through the consciences of the community around me. How much more have I failed to see that I am responsible directly (not merely through the machinations of government) for the wellbeing of those around me.

3) I don’t want to understand, because it feels better to condemn than it does to repent. The very statement of this point is causing a bit of moral upset in me, because even now part of me is wanting to make this about other Christians and not me. The fact is that it is always far easier to point at others and say “you’re doing it wrong” than it does to look at myself squarely and do the hard work of thinking of how I need to change. It is far easier to stay the course and convince myself that at least I’m better than . It can even hide in my desire to criticise “Christians” or “the Church” or any other group I can abstract myself from, even as I abstractly realize I’m part of the group.

In the end, perhaps I should be reacting like Josiah and praying God will be gracious.

Keep me in coffee

The author is often highly caffeinated. Keep him that way!

C$2.00

Pursuing Holiness

My local Church has decided to make the focus this year the pursuit of holiness. Now, as someone who has been around church circles, when we first talked about the idea, I have to admit I had a slight lurch in my stomach. Holiness? Does that mean we’re going to be going around like Saudi Arabia’s Mutaween, making sure that people who go to our church always do the right things according to the Bible? Am I going to be measuring skirts to make sure they’re not an unacceptable amount above the knee, and reporting when I see people going into the liquor store or (gasp) a movie?

You see, these methods have been historically the way some of our more holiness-inspired brothers have sought to make the church “holy” in its conduct. When people have a standard of behaviour, the (apparently) natural outworking is to see how many others are adhering to that standard. If we are called to live holy lives, then I should make sure that my next door neighbour adheres well to those standards, even moreso if they are fellow believers and may be straying from the godly path by going to see the latest animated musical in theatres.

The impetus isn’t limited to churches either. Irate fellow tenants often castigate their neighbours for not recycling properly (or at all), and there are the judgemental stares that follow families with a lot of children around. When we’re given a standard, our natural inclination is to get others to follow it.

It gets so bad that many will simply deny the need or existance of standards. From churches that refuse to talk about (rather obvious) evils, to the more extremist libertarians and anarchists who seem to be want to be rid of any government at all.

Yet God has said that holiness is a good thing, a necessary thing. God Himself points out that holiness is one of his attributes (Ex 15:11), He tells us to worship Him in holiness, and even calls that holiness a splendour (Ps 29:2). We are called to control our bodies in holiness (1 Th 4:4). We’re even warned that without holiness, none of us will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).

So what are we to do? Should we be installing trackers in people, and grading behaviours, dress, and language?

Probably not. First of all, there is the frequently misused warning Jesus gave us in Matthew 7 to not judge others in any way you are not willing to judge yourself. This doesn’t mean we all should avoid judging entirely, but that any judgement is first to be levelled at yourself.

But the more important reason is that the holiness God desires, and that the Christian pursues is not primarily a function of behaviour, but of faith. This is not to say that the behaviour is unrelated, and that we shouldn’t be troubled by the sin we see in ourselves (indeed, we are called to repent of any sin we see in ourselves), but rather that it is a fools errand to go around fixing external behaviours when the real problem is that we have hearts far from God. The sin is bad, what is worse is that we sin because we want to, and that sin of willful rebellion to God is far worse than the symptomatic instances of bad behaviour we can control with rules and social isolation.

Holiness isn’t something you create by force of will, but something you put on in the grace of Christ by faith in Him. Ephesians 4 is instructive:

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Eph 4:17–24.

Notice a couple of things. While Paul (the writer of Ephesians) does actually expect his hearers to act in ways that are in keeping with Christ, his call is not to make them act better, but rather to “put off” the old self and to “put on” the new self that is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”. What’s the difference between essentially pretending to be holy until you actually are, and this “putting off and putting on”? Paul gives us a rather direct hint when he says that those who are acting in unholy ways are in the “futility of their minds” and in an ignorance born of their “hardness of heart”.

Instead of being a moral reformation method, the holiness that is expected of Christians, and provided in Christ is instead a transformation from one type of person to another. From a person that is self-made in sin, to one that has been made by God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Thus true holiness is found, not primarily in avoiding sinful actions (or even actions perceived as sinful), but rather in forsaking your own hard heart and having God remake you into the likeness of God. It is a transformation of the heart before it is a reformation of the morals.

Thus as I embark on the year of pursuing holiness, I am not beginning a year where I call myself and others just to better action, but where I daily point myself to Christ, and cast myself on His grace and mercy, trusting Him to change me, and calling those around me to do the same.

SDG

T4G Day 3

Yesterday’s messages were very good, and powerfully convicting. Though the one I found the best was not a main session, but the breakaway session for Canada. Putting aside the fact that they had little plastic laminated flags on hockey sticks, and they used the newer “official” Newfoundland flag instead of the much older tricolour, it was great to meet people from all accross Canada, and to hear the problems, the way God has been working, and a call to the kind of holiness (and here I mean real, active love for God an neighbour, not the number of Bible verses you memorize and whether your wife wears skirts or not) that will show the world that Jesus is from God, and that His Gospel is real.
That was the most convicting part, not because I’m opposed to personal holiness in the life of the Christian, but because its often easy to imagine that holiness is irrelevant to the message I try to preach. The fact is, though, that it will be difficult for people seeking real fellowship with the living God to see that if I act in my life as if God doesn’t matter. Worse, I can end up convincing myself that God is small, or a tiny part of my life unless I do battle with the sin that keeps me separate from Him. After all, how can I claim I see him as majestic, awesome and glorious, if I find the sin that opposes that glory so minor… If I treat God lightly anywhere in my life, it means God weighs lightly on me, and that isn’t what the Bible is talking about when we hear about “the fear of the Lord”.
Right now, and I hope this continues, my prayer after this conference is that I will continue to, “by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh”. May God grant us all repentance.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

People Don’t Change?

It’s always been a bit of a puzzling maxim for me: People don’t change. I’ve heard it fairly frequently, whether it’s said positively, about some character trait of a person you’re depending on, or negatively about some person, and their character trait that is causing pain for others yet again. Yet what puzzles me is that it is so clearly not true, and in fact leads us to believe some strange things about people, and possibly dangerous things about ourselves.

A Grain of Truth
Like most ideas we have as a culture, this one stems from a bit of truth. There are character traits that people have that one should not count on changing. If you are looking at a partner with marriage in mind, you should not be thinking about things they need to change to be a good spouse. Nor should you rely on someone to display character traits in day to day interactions that they have never displayed before.
With people, the most accurate predictor of future activity is past activity. That is something I will frequently say in counselling situations, even after I spend a blog post debunking the maim of how people don’t change. The reason is that people do most often keep character traits that they have in the past, and are most likely to continue to struggle with sins that they have struggled with in the past (Biblically, think of David’s weakness for women, Peter’s fear of people, etc.)
So then why would I take issue with a statement that seems to pass on this useful bit of information?

A More Accurate Picture
Unfortunately, the reason that we can count on past character as an indicator of future character has nothing to do with the unchangeableness of humanity. Rather, that particular bit of truth is a working out of the fact that all humanity is ALWAYS changing. This is true whether we are talking about our physical change (growing from children, to adults, to the elderly, and eventually to death), or change in our personality (from childish, to mature, whatever “mature” will look like for you).
The change we’re going through continues day by day, often so slowly we do not notice, and so we humans (having freakishly low attention spans) imagine that this is constant. This is also the reason we can be dumb enough to believe that changeable parts of us should be considered our identity (beauty, intellect, etc.). It also means that there is an awful lot of inertia going for the trajectory of changes we’re going through, and so to change our direction, there will have to be many choices we make in a different one.

Danger and Opportunity
Ths simple fact is that the changes in our character and physique are going to happen, but the way that those changes are going to happen will be determined by the choices and actions we have right now. Just as in the physical sphere, we will never start to get healthy habits and thus a healthy physique unless we actually take the time to change our present habits that have been building our present body, our character will only improve insofar as we make decisions and do things in keeping with a better character.
This means that as Christians, while our justification is secure in Christ’s action on the cross, we will never be the kinds of people Christ calls us to be unless we avoid sin and act righteously. That is to say, unless we make the decisions that will lead us away from what we were making ourselves into through sin, and follow Christ who will remake us into righteous people.
We will all change. A year from now, we will all be a year older, and we will either be more conformed to the image of Christ (if we seek Him) or we will be more conformed to our sinful nature if we follow sin. Change will happen. The question is what change will it be?