Friday, July 18, 2014

A Captive’s Confession

Today, as a read in highly favorable review of Kevin DeYoung’s latest book in World Magazine, I was reminded of my past. While today I delighted in this review, it had not always been this way. In the past, even in my Christian past, jealousy and resentment would have tormented me and, sadly, even seduced me. “Why couldn’t that review have been about my book,” I would have fretted.

Jealousy had been an ugly deceiving companion. Even as a Christian, I had delighted in showing other Christians how little they knew – a dark form of one-ups-man-ship. Nevertheless, I had convinced myself that I was being a good Christian, exposing their over-confidence. Actually, I was merely parading my own sin, and deep within, I knew it. I felt alienated and filthy, but it required years for the ugliness of my sin to come into focus.

Meanwhile, this canker and the resulting feelings of alienation caused me to hate church. As I gradually came to perceive the sin and its ugliness, it had already progressed to stage four. I repeatedly struggled against it, but it had metastasized throughout mind and heart. It had become stronger than my ability to cope with it and left me feeling like a complete hypocrite, totally unworthy of serving of Savior. Shame tied me up into a psychological strait-jacket. I lived in the shadows lest anyone would see me.

How can I now admit this to you? Well, I’ve learned many important truths along the way that now sustain me. For one thing, we are all helpless sinners who need the Savior. Our righteousness is like filthy rags. However, He has made us stand by freely granting us the gift of His own righteousness. If He accepts me, I can begin to accept myself with all of my failings and to be transparent about them, even boasting in them (2 Cor. 12:9-10)

However, His grace did not stop there. So often, I had prayed that He would make me like Him without seeing any results, even after years. But I found that growth is like a seedling that would suddenly, even imperceptibly, make its appearance long after I had tired of looking for it.

I now delight in the spiritual triumphs of others and enjoy church. How did this happen? It is a mystery to me, explainable only by grace. Do I still have those thoughts? Indeed, but now I am convinced that there is something greater than my own successes and glory – the glory of God and His work! Seeking His glory now trumps any other considerations, and I thank God for this glorious and liberating gift.

What do we do when we see that we are still controlled by sin? Trust that He is in the process of liberating us! It is His will to do so:

  • To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Salvation by the Correct Ideas

In a recent interview with Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer claimed that “salvation by correct ideas” was one thing that had turned him away from biblical Christianity. After all, thinking the right thoughts in order to be saved seems so removed from everything that we regard as meaningful – love, justice, goodness, and relationships. Also, damnation by having the wrong ideas or beliefs seems completely unfair, unjust, and beneath the dignity of God.

There is even some basis for Schaeffer’s indictment. The Bible claims that we are saved by grace operating through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). Faith, to some degree, entails embracing right ideas about Jesus. Doesn’t this mean that we are saved by having the right ideas? Besides, this would also mean that, to some extent, we are damned by having the wrong ideas, right?

Behind Schaeffer’s charge is the assumption that what we believe is arbitrary and therefore, should not carry any moral weight or guilt. Along with this, he asserted that, “Knowing doesn’t make you a better person.” Why then should anyone be penalized for not knowing, especially since knowing isn’t really possible, as Schaeffer claims.

But is there a moral dimension to knowing? Should we be held responsible for not knowing? Sometimes, not knowing is justly punishable. If a student fails to regurgitate the right answers on a test because he didn’t study, he is understandably penalized. However, does this principle also pertain to the Christian beliefs about Jesus? Should we know these facts? Are we accountable when we don’t have them?

What if there is a God who loves us and died for our sins, and what if these truths are knowable? Many say:

  • I am content to know that there is a higher power. I don’t need to know all the specifics. In fact, I don’t think that there is anything we can really know about God.

But what if God is knowable! He was certainly knowable during the ministry of Jesus. He had performed so many miracles that they are acknowledged even by His detractors and their Talmud. These miracles were so compelling that His adversaries wanted to put Him to death because of them. After Jesus brought forth Lazarus from the dead after four days, these adversaries reasoned that He had to be stopped:

  • Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.” (John 11:45-48)

If miracles did not speak persuasively about Jesus’ divine identity, they would not have constituted a threat to the religious establishment. Nor would the people have believed. Instead the evidence would have to be extinguished.

Clearly, belief and non-belief represented two sides of a great moral divide. Belief loved the light and came to the light. Unbelief detested the light of the evidence – the truth - and wanted to eradicate it.

Unbelief is equated with a refusal to believe despite the overwhelming evidence. The evidence was so compelling that Jesus stated:

  • “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father.  But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:37-38)

Knowing was more than a possibility; it was a duty, a moral obligation to accept the truth. To reject the light of truth brought guilt, as Jesus affirmed:

  • “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin… If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’” (John 15:22-25)

To reject the evidence of Jesus’ miracles, was to hate Him “without reason,” and this carried moral culpability. However, many argue:

  • Well, I have no way of knowing whether or not these miracles really happened. I haven’t seen any, and so I can’t be held accountable for what I don’t know.

As Jesus indicated, ignorance is an adequate excuse, but are we really ignorant? The Apostle Paul argued that we are not:

  • The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)

God is angry because we do know a lot about Him and yet reject Him. He has stocked our conscience, mind, and the creation with adequate evidences, and yet, we “suppress the truth by [our] wickedness.” In light of this, we are, in a sense, saved by correct thinking, but this correct thinking is available to all. Some will acquiesce to the truth, while others will reject it. Of course, many protest:

  • I don’t have this knowledge of God, and it is not right for you to indict me as if I do have this knowledge.

The Book of Proverbs also affirms that we have the truth but reject it. Wisdom surrounds us, but it tells us uncomfortable things about ourselves, and so we reject it:

  • “Then they will call to me [wisdom] but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord. Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them.” (Proverbs. 1:28-31)

Wisdom is available but disdained. It’s painful and exposes the truth about us. It carries a “rebuke” that informs us that we are sinners who need the Savior. Therefore, we reject wisdom in favor of our own narrowly self-serving thoughts. We harden our heart against the truth. However, when we do this, we blind ourselves and stumble to our own destruction.

In fact, Scripture hints that, even in the next life, we freely choose the place of darkness because we hate the light (John 3:17-20). How does this great tragedy occur? We cannot stand to face ourselves – our inadequacies, our moral failures, our guilt and shame. We therefore suppress the truth about ourselves in favor of comfortable fictions and self-justifications. We also suppress the knowledge of God along with His judgment of our sins.

You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize these things. So many psychological studies indicate that we are self-deluded. We hate the light and will take extreme measures to avoid or suppress it. We then conveniently cloth ourselves with an exalted, self-serving set of beliefs about ourselves. Psychologist Roy Baumeister reports:

  • There are now ample data on our population showing that, if anything, Americans tend to overrate and overvalue ourselves. In plain terms, the average American thinks he’s above average. Even the categories of people about whom our society is most concerned do not show any broad deficiency in self-esteem.

We do not want the truth if it interferes with our self-esteem. We would rather feel good than think rightly. However, when we reject truth, we also reject God and any correct thinking about Him.

I talk to hundreds of people, even thousands, about God. Although many will admit that the question of the existence and character of God is foundational to all other questions – questions of meaning, morality, behavior, relationships – they refuse to seek God. They protect themselves with excuses like, “No one can really know.”

However, such an excuse is actually a claim to great knowledge, the very kind of knowledge they claim that we can’t have. How do they know that “no one can really know?” Instead, this is a mere excuse, a culpable excuse. In reality, they do not want to know. They correctly sense that the truth might just be too demanding, too confining, or even too accusatory.

In a sense, we are saved by correct thinking and damned by our incorrect thinking. However, this thinking is not devoid of moral significance. Instead, it reflects the very depths of our being, our desires and choices – choices that will either draw us to God or separate us from Him.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sweden and the Costs of Self-Promotion

When trying to prove that atheism is fruitful, atheists appeal to the “atheistic” country of Sweden for support. (Obviously, they can’t invoke the militant atheistic communist nations!) That’s why I was delighted to meet an engaging Swedish woman at a hostel in Krakow, Poland, who I assaulted with a series of questions.

She quickly dismissed that assertion that Sweden was atheistic, affirming that most Swedes believe in God even though they aren’t church-goers. Nevertheless, she acknowledged that the Christian faith was continuing to shrink away from the Swedish public arena. Even though not a Christian, she acknowledged that the public disappearance of the faith was associated with the growth of social ills:

  • The youth have been taught to think that they are #1 and that they can do all things. Consequently, they can’t deal with setbacks.

She explained that their unrealistically high expectations have not prepared them for failure. Besides, failure undermines the very foundation of their self-concept and therefore, it is too painful to endure. It boldly tells them that they are not superior.

This made me think that Sweden was not very much different from the rest of the West, although it might have played a pioneering role. But why do we find this tendency so prevalent in the West?

It seems that when a culture minimizes God, a vacuum is created – a vacuum that needs to be filled. If the West can no longer rely on God, what then can it rely on if not the self! If God is no longer the answer to our hopes, then we are forced to pick up the reigns. Our dreams and hopes must now be fulfilled by us.

While this “captain of my ship” orientation is greatly esteemed, the costs are seldom considered. Yes, there are costs! My Swedish friend noted a few of them – alienation, loneliness, and the breakdown of community.

However, at first glance, there seems to be no causal link between these social ills and believing in oneself. It would seem that self-trust and self-esteem might even provide some extra confidence in navigating the threatening waters of social interaction, but this might not be the case. A study performed in the U.S. about 18 years ago found that only 10% admitted that they lacked a friend to whom they could share their innermost concerns. When the survey was repeated 15 years later, that percentage had climbed to 25%, despite higher reported levels of self-esteem.

What can account for such a troubling upturn? Self-esteem costs! When we attempt to fill the God-vacuum, we have to deny and suppress disturbing truths about ourselves. These truths clearly tell us we are not gods and can’t trust in ourselves. Instead, we fight an ongoing battle against our perceptions in order to believe the unbelievable about ourselves. It becomes too painful to acknowledge that we have weaknesses and failings that we have not been able to overcome. Consequently, we suppress the painful and accentuate those things that bring us psychological comfort.

This is not guesswork. Many surveys have demonstrated that the mentally “healthy” live lives of self-delusion. For instance, in one study, the subjects were asked to rate themselves according to numerous characteristics. Then others who knew the subject well rated him. The subject’s rating was almost always higher than those who knew him best.

How would a heightened self-image affect relationships and alienation? Here are several thoughts:

  1. If we are in a constant battle to define our artificially high self-image, we might feel threatened by how others would regard us and isolate ourselves. Defensiveness interferes with relationship formation.

  1. It is hard to relate to someone who doesn’t share the same reality, namely, our self-image. This would produce dissonance and consequently, social isolation. Just think of the problems trying to relate to someone who thinks that they are the next Einstein.

  1. When someone is engaged in trying to heighten their self-esteem, we will either feel coerced into helping them or we will also feel the need to prove ourselves in face of such arrogance.

  1. If we feel superior to others, we will not value them sufficiently.

  1. In contrast, humility is self-accepting and non-coercive. It esteems the other. It also allows our associate to lay down his guard and to be himself.

It is hard to play God. It also seems to be costly. We are not equipped to play God but rather to be the beneficiary of His mercy. Therefore, Jesus warned:

  • “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

Consequently, to reject God is to reject ourselves and the hope of real attachments and community.

What does God want from us? Faith or Obedience?

What is pleasing to our Savior? Simply that we trust (believe) in Him and His mercy that He has obtained for us at the cross (Eph. 2:8-9), apart from any merit or good deeds on our part (Rom. 3:23-28). However, we often forget that trust/faith is made complete through obedience (James 2:18-24). In fact, faith is not even the real thing without repentance and obedience. Rather, such a “faith” is a lifeless imitation (1 John 1:6).

The Psalms often reflect just how inseparable obedience is from a real faith. Psalm 51 begins where it should – with a plea for mercy:

  • Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)

A relationship with God cannot be founded upon anything short of mercy and confession of sin. Real blessedness cannot be based on our achievements or entitlements, as David reflected:

  • Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1-2)

David equated blessedness with the forgiveness of God and not our moral attainments. In fact, the blessedness, this mercy of our Savior, mysteriously transports us to righteousness. According to tradition, this Psalm followed David’s sins of adultery, murder, and cover-up. However, David understood the profound and over-riding nature of God’s mercy – a mercy that was able to over-ride all of his sin:

  • Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him. Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psalm 32:10-11)

David concluded that although our sins might be as red as scarlet, trusting in God’s mercy could reverse them all. As a result, he now understood that he stood among the “righteous” of God. As presumptuous as this might seem, this is the very assurance of God!

However, the Gospel doesn’t just stop there. It makes demands upon every aspect of our lives. Although the Gospel starts with God’s mercy – His grace – which enables us to stand, we are made to stand so that we can walk His walk. David understood that that this grace would enable him to “teach,” “sing” and “declare your praise”:

  • Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psalm 51:12-15)

We love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:10). Without the assurance of His love we cannot reciprocate love. Without grace, we cannot even begin to live the Christian life. David based praising God upon the mercy of God. Even the performance of the most rudimentary tasks depends on His grace (Psalm 127:1-2).

Although obedience is commanded, is it optional for salvation, as some argue? If we are saved by grace through faith alone, apart from any good deeds or obedience, doesn’t this mean that obedience isn’t necessary for salvation? After all, if salvation is a free gift (Eph. 2:8-9), obedience shouldn’t be required, right?

Instead, Jesus taught that a “born again” faith would invariably produce the good fruit of obedience:

  • “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mat. 7:16-19)

If someone is a child of God, there should be some fruit. We should not profess Christ with our mouths unless we also profess Him with our lives. Our lives should reflect what our mouths profess, even if the fruit is merely a matter of confessing that we have wronged another and asking for forgiveness.

John puts it like this:

  • Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. (1 John 2:9-10)

Walking in darkness is not a biblical option. If we live in the darkness of hate, we do not have the light or any connection to Jesus. We are just lying to ourselves:

  • Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. (1 John 2:4)

Obedience is not optional for the Christian. To refuse to live obediently is to refuse to trust in the teachings of the Gospel and the words of Jesus. Such a refusal demonstrates a lack of real faith. A real faith is fertile soil which produces a crop. If there is no crop, there is no fertile soil.

Faith and obedience are inseparable. If we trust in our Savior, we will do what He tells us to do. Likewise, if we trust our doctor, we will follow his recommendations. If we refuse to, it means that we never really trusted him.

The fruit is almost inseparable from the tree that bears them. Therefore, we can judge the tree by its fruit. If a tree bears apples, we know that it is an apple tree, and we can judge it as such. In the same way, we are salvifically judged by our works, as Jesus taught:

  • “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” (Mat. 25:41-43)

These unfortunates will be judged and condemned by their works. This seems to suggest that salvation is not a free gift. However, it is! Faith/salvation is a free gift that produces obedience. Therefore, our obedience is a necessary sign of our faith as apples are a sign of the apple tree, which bore them. If the tree doesn’t produce apples, it is not an apple tree. If our faith does not produce fruit, we do not have a living faith.

The Apostle James affirmed that his obedient life was the fruit of his faith. Therefore, he didn’t have to boast about his faith. He could merely show it off through his life (James 2:18). This is because a real faith produces fruit. They are inseparable. Therefore, if we are judged by our works, we are really being judged by our faith, which is reflected by our works.

However, this can be a very troubling teaching. Christians might wonder:

  • How much obedience do I need to demonstrate that I have a real saving faith? I fail in many ways. How then can I really be confident in God’s mercy – that he really has accepted me?

We all fail in many ways. This painful awareness should bring us back to the mercy of God and His promise:

  • If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

Our soiled deeds will never be sufficient. Instead, our hope resides in the mercy of God, from beginning to end. And He is truly gracious. I think of the highly compromised but “righteous” Lot, who had offered his daughters to the perverted mob and later impregnated his daughters in his drunken stupor. From our superficial perspective, Lot failed to show signs of having a living faith. However, God saw something else in him:

  • He rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless, for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard. (2 Peter 2:7-8)

We have no indication that Lot had ever tried to reform his home town of Sodom. Instead, it seems that he had been content to live there. Although his life seems to have lacked fruit, God saw something else.

Our God sees things that we don’t see. The false prophet Balaam had come to Moab to curse Israel before God. This should have been a cake-walk. Israel had no shortage of sin, but not in the eyes of Israel’s Redeemer. Instead, according to God’s revelation, Balaam proclaimed:

  • He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them. (Numbers 23:21; KJV)

This incredible revelation instructs us to never underestimate the mercy of God for His redeemed. Israel had stood by the Red Sea as the Egyptian chariots approached for the kill. Their faith failed them and they rebelled against Moses and God. However, mercifully, they are recorded as exemplars of faith:

  • By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (Hebrews 11:29)

“By faith?” Israel had been in rebellion, but Israel’s God saw something else – a faith that enabled them to walk through the waters!

What does God want from us? He wants to save us! He has already paid the supreme price and seems to want to maximize His investment. He therefore stoops low for broken but sin-confessing lives. And that’s us!