Thursday, August 23, 2018

Faith Versus Works

Not all works are equal, and even "good" works can be differentiated by quality. Some works are self-referent and so are not meritorious in the sight of God even if they accomplish something worthwhile. These are initiated by the self for the benefit of self and so are merely a selfish pursuit, even if they seem altruistic. They are only impressive among those who cannot see them for what they are, or those who do the same kind of works. They gain no favor with God.

There are works which are not self-referent. Those are inspired by God, bidden by God, and carried forward at his instigation, impetus and encouragement. Even though such works are not truly capable of being credited to the ones doing them, God rewards them as if they are. If God rewards them for being done they must be considered meritorious, despite the fact that in themselves they could never force him to declare their doers righteous on the basis of them.

No work is meritorious of salvation, regardless of whether or not it is rewardable by God. No work has the power to erase the record of works which are not meritorious (i.e. sin), only blood can do that and that by concession from God. So at best, God-instigated works can be rewardable with benefits (even eternally) but never with forgiveness or righteousness. That is not surprising because forgiveness is an act of mercy or grace, and as such can never be earned, else it would cease to be mercy or grace.

Faith is always referent to its object. It can be misplaced, as it would be if directed at self or at false gods, and thereby be without any value whatsoever to God. However, if its object is God as he is, particularly his character and power, God does reward it. There is nothing about faith in and of itself which would deserve such reward, the impetus for such lies completely in God's grace. Yet, because God responds rewardingly toward faith in him, such God-referent faith would have to be considered meritorious.

However, even saving faith is not meritorious of salvation. There is nothing in such faith which has the power to wash away sin and restore righteous fellowship with God, even though it is essential to salvation. It is merely the reaction (trust) a believer has toward God's words and deeds, and even then not unaided. God's word (of promise) is what invokes faith, while God's presence (or Spirit) is what aids it.

The Apostle Paul made it clear that works and faith are not the same sort of thing. He treated them as diametrically opposed concepts. While it is true that both faith and works can be rewardable, it is also true that neither is meritorious of salvation. So even though God promises salvation to those who put their trust in Christ, it is the blood of Christ which does the heavy lifting.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

What Does It Mean to Be Regenerated?

Regeneration literally means to be born again. That is a biblical concept beyond doubt (e.g., clearly here and here, likely here), but what it entails and when it occurs is much more in question. Calvinists see it occurring prior to it's recognition in people, many as occurring before faith. Arminians see it as occurring after faith, as a result of faith. Calvinists see it as the fruit of God's monergistic efforts, Arminians see it as the consequence of faith enabled.

But what does it mean to be born again?

Being born again is a work of God whereby the Holy Spirit enters into the very existence of a human being to abide, thereby infusing spiritual life into and establishing an intimate, mutual fellowship with that person. It is a transformative experience, but not so much that it so thoroughly changes the person that he or she does not retain his or her personal self-awareness. It is transformation by addition rather than subtraction, which allows the born again person to begin to to experience communication with God, to perceive life differently, to relate to people differently, to valuate things differently and to live differently than they did prior to the experience.  Before the experience, the born again are singular beings separated from God; afterwards, the born again are people with two natures with one connected to God.

Becoming born again is the result of a combination of faith and the Holy Spirit. We don't need to be born again in order to believe, that is over-stretching a metaphor (i.e. being dead in sin); we are born again because we believe (otherwise, God would make everyone believe). Human beings do have a God-given capacity to believe as is seen in the ability of natural people to believe in and trust all kinds of things quite apart from God. However, to believe in Christ we need an encounter with the Holy Spirit sufficient to convict us concerning Christ and waken us to something we could not waken ourselves to in our metaphorical deadness.

Ultimately, the natural self, the sinful self, will be changed in the born again, completely regenerated into a new nature like unto Christ's. That new eternal creature will possess a singular nature in unity with the Father akin to that which Christ shared with the Father as he walked on the earth. Then, we will be on the same page with God, never to go astray again. Ultimately, regeneration is not being renewed to Adam's nature prior to the Fall, but surpassing it, and being transformed into Christ's nature as the second Adam, the Son of Man.

Our born again experience in the Holy Spirit now is the down payment of that good thing to come.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

What Does It Mean to Be Totally Depraved?

The one point that Calvinism and Arminianism agree upon is that humankind is totally depraved. It sounds like an incredibly harsh judgment against the creature, one that is not apparent, particularly, when looking at individual cases. This description, however, is not meant to suggest that everyone is as "bad" as they could possibly be, but to describe their spiritual condition in relation to God. In a nutshell, this characterization refers to the disabling brokenness that sin and death has caused to human nature since Adam's fall.

When Adam forsook God and was justifiably cursed by him, his innate connection to God was broken and his physical being was stricken with death. Adam was cast from the presence of God (the place where God walked) and frustrated in his relationship to the biosphere and with others of his kind (Eve to start). The individual became an island unto himself (so necessarily sinful) with no ability to get back to God, nor to truly understand and relate to him nor, for that matter, to do so with his fellow human (as seen from Jesus' high-priestly prayer). Locked in a self-absorbed prison of death and decay separated from God, debauchery ensued. If God did not initiate contact with humans, no contact, no interest, no desire would be forthcoming from Adam's kind.

Hopefully, it is evident that humankind's depravity should not be seen as something that renders humankind incapable, even in their depraved state, of responding to the interjection of God. God showing up in a way that can be responded to is sufficient in itself to break any barrier that would have kept fallen, natural man in the dark concerning God. Such is demonstrated over and over again throughout biblical history (e.g. Noah, Abram, Moses, etc.). To posit a theory in which God has to fix the depraved human being (i.e. regeneration) before that one can respond to him is unnecessary and not validated by scripture.

The truth is that what makes humans depraved in the first place is a lack of God in their lives. People are depraved in that they are like God (i.e. in his image) but are apart from and without God who's presence is what makes that image work properly. In their depravity, they have no desire to have God (as he truly is) in their lives. What they need they neither discern nor want. When God comes near in the mysterious ways that the Holy Spirit can, that lack is addressed at least to the level that the fallen human is able to see, hear, and respond to what wasn't there before. None of this requires any change in their nature and none is ever mentioned throughout the biblical record.

Human beings always had and have always maintained since the Fall the spiritual capacity to recognize God. That capacity was not such that it could independently discover God or engage him on the basis of executing that capacity in and of itself. God's direct intervention is necessary for each and every human being to come to know and understand him and his ways, but upon that divine intervention, awareness of what we otherwise would not have been aware becomes possible. However, if Adam in all of his pristine purity and perfection could ignore and forsake divine connectedness, than so can all his depraved sons and daughters.

Even the best amongst humankind is totally depraved, broken beyond their ability to help themselves--and yet even the most depraved among us can respond to the gracious visitation of the Holy Spirit. Depravity will continue to be an issue for us until Christ returns and our old dead, depraved natures are done away with once and for all, and new nature completely like unto Christ's is put in their place. That, of course, is predicated upon turning to Christ now. So let me ask you, have you responded to the Holy Spirit drawing you to Christ yet?

Friday, June 29, 2018

A. C.U.R.E.

The famous (or infamous, depending on your view) theological acronym TULIP has for centuries served the Church well in summarizing the basic tenets of Calvinistic soteriology. It arose from the disputations the Arminian school of thought offered back in the 1600's. The Calvinists carried the day at the Synod of Dort (the house was stacked) and walked away from that debate with what became known as TULIP: the Arminians walked away ridiculed with nothing but the truth.

There have been some good offerings for a similar acronym for Arminian soteriology (like FACTS), but I have never found them satisfactory because I didn't feel they were clearly descriptive. So, for the ailment of inexactitude, I'd like to offer a cure.

A.= Absolute Inability: mankind is so incapacitated by spiritual death, that none are able to turn themselves to God apart from the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit.
C.= Conditional Election: God has chosen to save all who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
U.= Unlimited Atonement: the blood of Christ was shed for the sins of the entire world, and anyone who will can avail themselves of its effects through faith.
R.= Resistable Grace: The Holy Spirit's efforts at graciously influencing the sinner can be resisted by the sinner.
E.= Extinguishable Faith: the faith that the Holy Spirit's gracious ministrations made possible can be lost or shipwrecked by the person who had believed at one time.

I think this is a little more clearly descriptive than the FACTS acronym, especially for those who believe in the possibility of apostasy (and it doesn't have to be shared with a toy convention). It sure would be nice to have something as communicative as TULIP among those of us who actually got our soteriology right!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Faith Versus Fear

"For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me." Job 3:25 (ESV)

I've often told my congregation that the opposite of faith, at least in the active sense, is not unbelief but fear. Fear is the electromagnetic pulse that disables faith. How many times in the Bible is a divine encounter or a mission assignment prefaced by the encouragement, "do not be afraid?" 65, at least! The faith-stifling affects of fear can't be minimized and should not be ignored.

Fear is the Devil's calling card, his MO. It is his means of controlling the herd and driving it to the slaughterhouse. If the Devil can induce fear in people, he's got them. Like a venomous spider's strike immobilizes prey so it can be eaten at a more convenient time, so the apprehension and terror the Devil inspires allows him to throw his victims in his satchel at his leisure. Though it's completely speculative, I've always wondered whether or not he said something to Adam and Eve to make them hide from God in the bushes.

Fear of punishment, fear of death, fear of loss or failure--the Devil has game at any level and with any kind of fear. I cannot prove it factually (other than in Job's case), but fear, even secretly held in the breast, seems to be a harbinger of bad things to come. I've known people that wear their fear as a badge of honor, as if it proves they care. It only proves that they scare. Fear will not deliver us from any unfortunate end, but it sure seems able to deliver us to those ends.

Faith on the other hand, portends good things to those that possess it. Faith in God can move a mountain or calm the storm at sea. Faith receives healingwelcomes the promise of God, and moves the faithful to act. Nothing is impossible for one who has faith! Fear clamps chains upon the unbelieving, whereas faith frees the soul to lay hold of God with a grip that holds even through the passage of death.

The truth is that if we have laid hold of God through faith, we have nothing to fear at all, not even fear itself.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Death Be Not Proud

Death is said to be natural. It isn't. I know everything dies--bugs, trees, ocelots, and us--it's part of life as we know it. The struggle to avoid death, and the ultimate succumbing to it, are foundational to the naturalistic explanation of how life develops and species emerge. Yet, deep inside my heart, I hate death and chafe against its imposition.

And it is an imposition. God, the Creator, by revelation and definition doesn't dieweaken, decay, rest, rust, or turn to dust. All creation is an expression of who and what he is, so death doesn't fit! How can it be baked in the cake? The fact is that it's not: it's imposed supernaturally, as a curse from God.

The natural, created state of human beings was everlasting life. Sin is what brought death and all of us alike suffer from it. I think that despite the marring of God's image within humankind due to the curse on sin, deep inside, most of us feel that same chafing at death's imposition that I do. It doesn't feel right that it all should end with a breath. No matter how long we've lived in its shadow, it still catches up to us too soon.

I wish there was some way to fight that which is never satisfied; to yell, "That's enough!" and have it cease. If translated into some strange, spiritual dimension into a spectator's seat observing the battle between the living and the Grim Reaper, I would hiss at his every advance. I would boo at all of his progress. On particularly tragic days
, like a crazed soccer fan, I'd rush the field hoping to beat him with my own big stick.

But wait a minute... I do have a big stick and in the here and now! 

God came from heaven, took on human form, hung on that stick, died on it, and then rose from the grave victorious over it. Then he handed the power of that stick to us. Jesus defanged the hated beast and unstung the bee, and handed the victory to you and me. For all who trust in Jesus and what he did on that stick, what was natural is natural again.

Existence never ends, even if life does. For those trusting in Christ neither existence nor life end. Still, we must all cross over that dark threshold and chafe at the loss we feel as we and those we love die. Yet, our grief is not like the world's, for in the midst we find an overwhelming, inexpressible joy knowing that the Lion has risen and death works backwards

So, my friend, restore the natural order that was intended by God through embracing interjected supernatural means--put all your hope in Christ and live forever!

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Olivet Discourse: Be Prepared

The paradox of certainty v. uncertainty in regard to Christ's Return has some practical implications for the serious believer. We know with certainty it’s coming, but don’t (and can't) know when, so how should we then live? We're not left without instructions on the subject from Christ in the Olivet Discourse, which, as it happened, served to bring that discourse to an end. So what was the final word on the word about the final? Simply, "be prepared."

In Matthew's account, Christ advises that uncertainty is the fuel of preparation. Because the Son of Man will be coming at a time it doesn't seem like he will, being prepared for his return at any time is the only wise, practical response--a point graphically reiterated in The Parable of the Ten Virgins. Christ spoke of a parabolic homeowner who, if he would have known in what part of the night the thief was coming, would have made sure he was awake to prevent it. Since we cannot know when Christ will return, we should be at least as conscientious as that homeowner (who had a better forecast in regard to the thief than is possible for us in regard to Christ) and be watching rather than sleeping.

Luke presents the most general application of all three accounts: pay attention (Koine: prosexete) reflexively to how you are living. We are not to live weighed down by the worries of ordinary life, especially, I would say, if drunkenness (or even just "buzziness") is the means of doing so. It is not a burden to live in Christ, but it is a burden to live for this world, and it lulls us to sleep in regards to spiritual truth. The only way to gain the upper hand, and not be trapped suddenly in the tribulation ("these things") to come, is to stay awake and pray that we can gain that upper hand.

Matthew and Mark, although different as to specifics, both use a similar parabolic example (cf. Luke 12:35-46) to get this message of practical import across. The thought is that we should take Christ seriously as Master over us and be doing what he told us to be doing when he gets back. Since we do not know when that may be, reason dictates that we always be doing what he asked. It appears the best preparation for the end of the age is to be obeying Christ as a lifestyle.

So what are you doing?

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Olivet Discourse: No One Knows

All three accounts of Olivet Discourse issue warnings to be watchful in light of what Jesus prophesied concerning his return. I think this has led some to the faulty conclusion that the events foreseen would have been expected very soon by his original audience. I've already stated in other posts on this discourse that the signs mentioned were impossible to cram into a short time frame, so I won't repeat my reasoning here about that. Suffice it to say that Jesus' warning was not meant to convey urgency so much as it was meant to convey uncertainty.

No one knows when, exactly, Christ's return will occur. The phrase "day and hour" is specific enough to mean that the particular moment the event occurs is in view rather than a period of time within which it occurs; however, considerations about the suddenness of the event discussed below mean that the ultimate end cannot be what's in view either. We are told that angels do not know at which moment it will occur (I suppose that means the Devil doesn't either) and even the Son doesn't know. If only the Father knows, and the Son does not, that means there is no way for anyone to know--there is no way to figure it out and no revelation could be expected which would specify it.

No one knows, no one can know!

Yet, the crowd which has tried to figure it out or reveal it outright continues to grow (including Wm. Miller of the 7th Day Adventists, Chas. Taze Russell of JW’s, Herbert W. Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God, Edgar Whisenant, author of 88 Reasons, and Harold Camping of Family Radio, among others). Really, I don't know how much clearer Christ could have been on the subject. Those that pursue such a course have, minimally, fallen into error, and possibly, purposely, taken on the mantle of false prophet. May such folly cease to gain traction among the faithful!

Matthew (cf. Luke 17:22-37) tells us the time immediately prior to the return of Christ will be like the days of Noah before The Flood. Then, normal life (eating, drinking, marrying, farming, milling) proceeded right up to the moment sudden destruction came upon the world unaware. Despite Noah's preaching of righteousness and witnessing the construction of the ark, life prior to the flood was similar enough to what it had always been to lull his listeners into inattention. That, I believe, is the key point Christ was making--there was nothing about life as experienced by the masses prior to global judgment that signified that wrath was about to be poured out.

However, that point comes on the heels of Jesus elucidating very clear, noticeable, presaging signs that signified the end was near. How can these two points be compatible? They cannot be, if what Christ was referring to in this sudden ark-like deliverance from judgment at the end was to occur after the Abomination of Desolation (and all that goes with it). The only way the suddenness in the midst of regularity indicated by the description makes sense is if Jesus was not talking about the the ultimate end, but was referring to a period of judgment that started with that deliverance and finished with the ultimate end. This would be akin to the flood starting with Noah's family embarking on the ark, proceeding with a lengthy rain, and ending a year later with floodwaters receding and Noah's family disembarking.

In the example of Noah the judged were carried away by floodwaters, which was certainly passive for them, but was for God too, in the sense that it was indirect, through the agency of water. Noah, on the other hand, was personally, actively protected by God, who shut him in. There is a subtlety in the language of Matthew that could be seen to call upon the same dynamic. The word (paralambanetai) used to convey the action involved in taking the one in the field and at the mill has a range of meaning that allows it to be used for more personal, tender actions (like taking a bride) than either the word used of the floodwaters' action (eren) or for the ones left (aphietai) in the field or at the mill.

So, what is pictured is a cataclysm much worse than a mere 40 days of rain and a year of flood (i.e. 7 years of Great Tribulation) coming upon all on the earth at the end of the age. Some, like Noah in his day, will be actively removed from danger and taken by the hand of God (snatched or raptured), which fits quite well with Luke's "escape" (Koine: ekphrygien, to flee out from) and is pictured by the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Some will be left to their fate, carried off by the judgment overwhelming the whole earth as prophesied by Christ who will return at the end of it. The threshold the faithful need to cross is being ready for that Noachian escape popularly called The Rapture which comes suddenly, unknowably, but certainly in the course of everyday life.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Olivet Discourse: The Fig Tree Parable

The synoptic gospels are virtually identical in their accounts of the Parable of the Fig Tree within the Olivet Discourse. Whereas Luke specifically identifies the segment as a parable, the other accounts merely communicate its substance without a label. As in the case of many of the biblical parables, fanciful interpretations have arisen throughout history as to what are the "true" meaning of "symbols" within the parable. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand what parables are and are not in order to interpret this type of figure reasonably and to not veer off into the tall weeds.

Parables are merely analogies or comparisons--one thing, perhaps unknown or not fully understood, is likened, indirectly, to another that is readily known or understood. Parables are NOT allegories: each item in a parable is NOT meant to be symbolic of some other item in reality or to symbolically represent its action. Parables are really more akin to metaphors than to allegories in regard to their use of imagery. The conclusion or moral that can be drawn from the overall story of the parable, and thus teach a lesson, is the aim of using it.

As for the fig tree parable itself, two hermeneutic considerations need to be taken into account when interpreting it.

First, it is not really symbolic at all! It is a parable and is not reliant on meanings hidden in symbols. The audience knew figs, there were figs on the Mount of Olives where this discourse was being made (as well as olives), and so Jesus spoke about figs. When figs wake up from the winter and put out leaves, it is a sure sign that summer is around the corner. We could say the same thing using trees we know about in our neck of the woods and make the same point Jesus was trying to make, and make it just as well.

Second, Israel has never been symbolized anywhere in scripture as a fig tree, and it wasn't being symbolized as such in this parable. Making a fig tree represent Israel is beyond a stretch anywhere it is attempted, and it is not remotely hinted at, let alone obviously intended, by the language of this parable. To do so is bad interpretation, plain and simple. The fig tree is merely the means to communicate the concept of predictability in sequence from a known event to another related event: if one step of the progression occurs, you know with certainty the next step is about to happen.

Jesus said that when all (Matthew; Koine: panta) these things (Matthew, Mark and Luke; Koine: tauta) were seen (i.e., experienced), then we would know we were at the very end. Those things were all the things, each and every one of them (the force of tauta), detailed in the prior verses. When that condition exists, then the Son of Man bursting through the skies is at the door.  The intent is to keep folk from jumping the gun and anticipating the return of Christ before all of these things had come to pass--an especially helpful point considering the length of time envisaged in giving the signs in the first place.

The generation (Koine: genea, all those alive over a particular span) referenced has nothing to do with any symbolic meaning attached to the fig tree, since there isn't any. The point being made was that at least some of those who saw the Abomination of Desolation and its outcome ("all these things") would see the end as well. Clearly, the use of "generation" was not referring to the initial hearers of the Discourse such a long time ago, for the implicit scope of elapsed time within the signs given throughout the Discourse would have made their lifetimes an unlikely frame for fulfillment. So the use of "generation" was a way to push the scale of fulfillment off to a period in the future when the Abomination actually occurred and to offer hope to those believers who would be living through it.

The heavens and earth may seem like bastions of enduring reliability, but Christ's words are so established as to be more certain than even the existence of the creation itself, and especially so in regard to the end of the age.