Wednesday, 4 June 2014

One Pastor to Another: A Younger Generation's Plea

“Sit down,” he said.  He was calm, but also firm. 

Sit down?  Seriously?   

I wasn’t there to say anything in my friend’s defense, but then I hadn’t expected him to be heckled by his colleagues.  Certainly, had I been there I would have said something - assuming, of course, I had managed to get over the shock.  This was, after all, one minister of the gospel to another 

Sit down.

It was my friend who was doing the standing.  He was trying to explain and defend a motion which called on a member church (from the association of churches of which he was part) to repentance. The motion threatened also a subsequent motion for disassociation if, after one year, the terms of repentance were not met.  The man calling for his colleague to take a seat was (evidently!) not in support of the motion. 

Now, I understand that it is quite unusual for an association of churches to call a member church to repentance and even more unusual when that association threatens to disassociate itself from one of those same members, but then the church which needed removing was also – at least from where I sit – highly unusual.   It was a church that had given support to its minister who from the pulpit had dared to question the inspiration of Paul’s writings and who had denied the sinfulness of same-sex orientation.

In one of her sermons this minister had asked the question, “Why is it that we just accept at face value that Paul’s labels of certain behaviours as sin are the same as God’s?  Why do we credit Paul with infallible wisdom and knowledge?  Why do we assume that because He wrote it, it must be God’s words?”  She added, “He [Paul] didn’t sit down and dictate letters that God had dictated to him.  He wrote just like any God fearing present day preacher out of limited knowledge and understanding gained through his very human walk with God... Among the deep revelations of God’s heart we do discover in Paul’s writings deep revelations of Paul’s own unexamined prejudices.”  In that same sermon this pastor had proceeded to describe Paul’s language about homosexuality as prejudiced rather than inspired. 

Over the course of about 2 years attempts were made, first, to encourage this pastor to repent.  Later, efforts were made to challenge the church, which was Baptist, to deal with its minister.  Finally, when other avenues could no longer be pursued, my friend attempted the only thing left.  Here was an association of churches in voluntary association.  Years before they had come together because of shared doctrines and because they held a shared and common mission to reach the lost with the message of the gospel.   Surely, they would want to know that one of their own no longer shared those same doctrines and mission.  Surely they could no longer remain in voluntary association with a church which questioned the inspiration of the Scriptures and which was no longer willing to call sinners to repentance.  Souls now were in jeopardy not only outside the churches but within one of their very own.  And so, in his honest way, my friend stood up to speak in defense of a motion calling that same Association to do the only thing that could be done.   The Association would (if the motion were passed) issue a public call for repentance, and either the church would repent or the Association would dissociate itself from a member church which now no longer shared its mission and beliefs.

As he relayed the story of what transpired at that meeting I found myself surprised that the motion had received so little support.  As a former minister in that same Association I knew his colleagues, and so I began to ask, “well what about _________?”   It was when I was asked about one man in particular that he shared with me the experience of being ‘heckled’ by a fellow minister of the gospel. 

It was an older minister.  This was a man of whom I would have liked to have said, “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness (Proverbs 16.31).” This was a man from whom I expected so much more! 

Sit down…

We are taught to look up to our elders and to believe better things.  It is they who are so often found disparaging the moral drift among young people.  It is they who wax eloquent about former golden days when men had integrity and something called a “back bone”; and when men would live and die for their principles.  I have listened personally as men and women from older generations have worried aloud about what will come in the future when younger generations trade principles for expediency and forget integrity in their pursuit of success.  But, I have discovered time and again in the Church (and to my dismay!) that if I am to expect integrity, courage and principles I need (often) to look rather to my own generation. 

In fact, the burden of responsibility for the very mess in which the Church finds itself in today lies squarely on the shoulders of that older generation who for the sake of expediency laid the very groundwork for the moral and doctrinal drift that threatens now to ruin us.  In many cases they did not have the courage nor even the honesty to stand and speak on the side of truth; and so it is a younger generation that must now try, by the grace of God, to pick up the pieces. 

God is at work among that younger generation.  There is something of a reformation taking place as young men return to the Bible and to principles.  In places all over North America and beyond my generation is learning to take the Bible at its word.  In many instances it is these same young men who are standing up and speaking out and risking their livelihoods in the process.

At very least this younger generation should be able to count on the remorseful support of their elders, who though they did not have courage to speak in their day could at least lend their support to a younger (more principled) generation.  Sadly, my friend’s experience is illustrative of a more common pattern. 

Sit down

As I have thought about that minister’s response to a younger colleague’s appeal I have found myself wondering, is that it?  Is that all he could manage?  Even in that moment when he called for his colleague to sit down I wonder, did this elderly man not have the manliness, rather, to stand in his turn and say and own what he himself believed?  And why would he want to silence a colleague who only wanted to speak for truth?   Was he afraid that his own standards would not hold up under challenge?  And what could be so very wrong with the motion that my friend who made it needed silencing?  Is it not reasonable to expect that churches in voluntary association should share common doctrines?  Shouldn’t we expect an Association of churches to have a common mission to which they are committed?  Surely anyone can see that where doctrines, purpose and mission are no longer shared association among churches is meaningless. 

I am grateful to be part of a denomination that subscribes to the Westminster standards.  Here we are not ashamed to own publicly what we believe privately.  In fact all our churches hold to the same set of standards.  We know, then, (as we travel from church to church) what we can expect from the pulpit, and we know that when we give of our tithes and our offerings the money will be spent on a cause which we share. 

Sadly, my friend is part of a denomination which puts commitment to its own version of Baptist polity before the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  His is a denomination increasingly unwilling to own publicly what it believes privately.  There is much that is said about “the gospel”, and yet the churches cannot even agree on what is sin and who it is that needs to repent.  The Bible is still owned as their one single rule of faith and practice, but their own ministers cannot even agree on which parts are inspired and infallible.  They accept tithes and offerings, and yet they have no common cause to which to direct those monies.  At best, they are grossly inefficient in their stewardship of God’s resources. At worst, they risk losing the right to call themselves the Church.  For, as James Bannerman once put it, “the very object for which the Church of Christ was established on the earth was to declare and uphold the truth, with all its spiritual and saving blessings, among mankind, - that truth which exhibits at once the glory of God, and in harmony and connection with that, the salvation of the sinner.”[1]   

If only for a brief moment I wish I could have the attention of that older generation, so that I might plead with them… if only for a moment I had that chance I would ask them,

“What are you doing?  Do you not have eyes to see what you have allowed to happen?  You still sing about that old, old story, which you so love to tell; and yet don’t you see how you have allowed that story to change?  You lament the loss of young people, you regret the closure of increasing numbers of churches, you wonder at the moral drift and the decay all around you, and yet still you are unwilling to stand for any part of God’s truth. You zealously take the part of your neighbour, defending with passion that neighbour’s right to say and believe what her conscience tells her, and yet where is that same zeal for the honour of your King?  Your heart breaks at the sight of a church rendered in two by division, you weep for a colleague who is publicly criticized, but where are your tears for the souls who because they were not called to repentance will go on in their sin to everlasting judgment?”  

Were a prophet to rise up amongst us I think he would say to ministers in this generation what was once spoken by the mouth of Malachi, “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you.  If you will not hear, and if you will not take it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have cursed them already, because you do not take it to heart… For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth: for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.  But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law… (Malachi 2.1-2, 7-8a).”  We need ministers of the gospel committed to the testimony of Scripture however seemingly unpalatable; men who keep knowledge at all cost; and men who love the Church enough to tell the truth.  

 


[1] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. 1, 58.  Italics are mine.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Why millenials are leaving the church: A reply

Last year author and blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for CNN's Belief Blog (titled Why millenials are leaving the church) offering reasons for the departure of so many millenials from the church.  Speaking of her own efforts as a blogger she wrote, "Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people." 

Though delighted by her gentle rebuke of those evangelical leaders who continue to assume that "the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving," I was, of course, unhappy with the thrust of her article.

Still, I was fascinated with the way in which this professing evangelical Christian so blatantly and unapologetically betrayed herself.  It was her method that was so startling.  Evangelicals - if the word means anything anymore - begin and end with the Bible.  We say and believe this book is inspired by God and without error, and we maintain that it is our one and only rule of both faith and of practice.  The Bible, then, determines (not necessarily what is but) what ought (!) to be the practice of the Church. 

And so I might reasonably have expected Rachel to give reasons for this exodus (and reasons offered by millenials themselves), but then I would expect these reasons to be followed by Biblical solutions.  Rachel took another approach.   Beginning with the words, "We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against" she proceeded to offer a list of 4 more 'wants'.  

Over and again she would repeat the words "we want." 

We want?! 

Is this, then, how theology is to be done?   Is this what we should expect from future generations as they go about doing the business of the Church, interacting with a lost world and preaching Jesus?  Shall the faith and practice of Christians (and churches) now be governed by a list of wants? 

As a 35 year old perhaps I ought to be more sympathetic with millenial wishes, but I confess I am not.  Their wants neither matter to me nor should they matter to the rest of the Church. 

For centuries serious minded (old fashioned?) evangelicals have concerned themselves with just one question: what does God want? 

I 'get' that millenials (and Evans) "want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers" but God has given in book form a list of predetermined answers to those very questions now being asked; and He plainly rebukes those who are "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:3)."

I understand millenials "want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities" but God also wants to feel welcome in our faith communities and He is of "purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity."  Rather than see them comforted by the soothing messages of false prophets, God would have them to be warned (Jeremiah 14:14, 23:16; Ezekiel 3.16-21, 33:1-11; Malachi 2:7).

I understand how flattering and encouraging it might be (to millenials) if church leaders would "sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community."  God would rather church leaders sat down with their Bibles trembling and in awe asking just this: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do (Acts 9:6)?" 

It was once said of Israel "everyone did what was right in his own eyes."  May God keep us from losing sight of what He wants for what we want.  "Oh" says the LORD of hosts, "that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!... Therefore you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left (Deuteronomy 5.29, 32-33a)."

More on what millenials want to come...

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Most Holy Place by Charles Spurgeon

I'm not sure if its a sign of immaturity or eccentricity (or both), but I have since childhood kept a 'special' shelf for certain books.  This is a shelf that I have reserved for my favourite books, which have ranged over the years from Vanya by Myrna Grant to William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life to some of my current favourites.  Naturally, because there is limited space new books sometimes replace old ones.  Still, this has happened less and less in recent years because (owing to God's gracious providence) I discovered and read gems like Rutherford's Letters, John Owen's The Glory of Christ and the Memoirs & Remains of Robert Murray M'Cheyne very early on. 

Rarely, anymore, do I read anything worthy of a place on the 'special' shelf.  The Most Holy Place is a recent exception.  For the last year I have made this book my Sabbath reading, and I have enjoyed every page.  Week after week I have come away from his sermons refreshed, and I am quite certain that these sermons represent some of his very best.  Of course, The Most Holy Place is a series of sermons on the Song of Solomon, so it is a useful resource for pastors and teachers, but it is so much more.   I have loved reading this volume.  More importantly I have been spiritually enriched in the process.  Among the many books out there this is one of the very best!  And it is a book that is full of Christ.  That same quality that makes Rutherford's Letters and Sibbes' sermons - The Love of Christ - on the Song of Solomon (vol. 2) so special is what also makes this book special: it shows us the loveliness of Jesus.  Do get it if you can.   

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Strange Fire, Authentic Fire and How I Changed My Mind

Reading both (John MacArthur and Michael Brown's) books has been a valuable learning experience for me.  I hadn’t planned to read Michael Brown’s book because I was quite certain I knew what he would say and even more certain that I would disagree.  However, after listening to a presentation by John MacArthur to some of his Masters’ students and then a dialogue (also on YouTube) between Michael Brown and Phil Johnson I decided it was important to consider more carefully what Brown had to say.


From the beginning I have been sympathetic with John MacArthur.  Not only did my sympathies lie with cessationism [the teaching that the miraculous gifts have ceased], I have long appreciated the ministry of a man who has been a faithful shepherd.  More recently, I have been troubled and even surprised by some of the vitriol that has been spread around the internet in reaction to the recent Strange Fire conference.  My instinct all along has been in favour of MacArthur and colleagues, but watching the Christian community speak out in anger against him and reading his book only strengthened my resolve – for what it’s worth - to stand in his support.

But I’ve changed my mind.  I remain thankful for MacArthur and his ministry, and I am convinced that he meant well, but Michael Brown’s book has shed some valuable and needed light on the subject and led me to rethink some of my presuppositions and re-evaluate the Strange Fire conference.  Here, though, I will not attempt to make a case for either cessationist or continuist [the teaching that the miraculous gifts have continued] thinking.  Rather, having read both books I want to share some of the lessons learned from the experience.  

A. First, a great deal is gained by at least hearing the ‘other side’.  “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him (Proverbs 18.13).”  Perhaps it would have been better had the conference allowed opportunity for continuists like John Piper, D.A. Carson and Michael Brown to share something of their perspective, but at very least it is incumbent on the rest of us hear the matter before resolving one way or the other.  What’s at stake isn’t merely our approach to the miraculous gifts but our definition of a Christian, our ability to learn from those with whom we disagree and our attitude toward brothers in the Lord.   Strange Fire wasn’t just a plea for cessationism, it was an attack on an entire community of believers followed by a plea for division and (essentially) a call to arms.  Surely such a call should be heeded only after careful and prayerful consideration of all the arguments on all sides.

B. Second, no matter our differences there is always need for grace.  On this score Michael Brown is to be commended.  Though I do not agree with him on every point (and while I find it deeply distressing that he chose rather to favourably quote Benny Hinn than testify against him), I found his book the more gracious of the two.  I will admit here that Brown’s attitude and tone made me willing to hear his arguments, whereas listening to some of the proponents of cessationism I’ve wanted only to turn them off.  It seems to me that from the beginning Brown has modeled how differences like these should be handled.  According to his own testimony he tried repeatedly to meet with MacArthur and has continued since the conference to reach out for dialogue and debate.  Perhaps a great deal more would have been gained and more contributed to the kingdom had these pleas been heard.  In addition, Brown has consistently regarded and held in esteem his cessationist brothers as brothers in the Lord.  Whereas the other side has been guilty of making sweeping (and sometimes unkind) generalizations while calling for division in the body of Christ, Brown – in his book – demonstrates caution recognizing the various streams of thought within traditions and recognizing also the Christianity of those with whom he disagrees.   Whatever we may think of his theology, we would do well to learn from his gracious tone.

C. Third, it is possible to be wrong even though very right.  Again, I don’t want to speak for either side in this debate, but even if MacArthur and colleagues are perfectly sound in their teaching on the supernatural gifts, they are very wrong in the way that they have dealt with the charismatic community.  Errors do abound in that community, but as Brown points out – no matter what the tradition – we are all ultimately responsible only for those over whom we have authority.  Charismatics are no more responsible for the sins (and errors) of all other charismatics than Presbyterians are responsible for the sins (and errors) of all other Presbyterians.  Strange Fire has made gross generalizations which are sometimes so far off the mark they border on dishonesty.  To suggest, for example, that “there is essentially zero social benefit to the world from the Charismatic Movement” and that the movement has produced no social services, no hospitals and no relief for those living in poverty is wrong and deeply unfair.  In truth, and as Michael Brown has pointed out in his book, the movement has done so much in this way it is almost inconceivable that anyone could even think of suggesting otherwise.  Indeed, it may one day be shown that they have done more this way than the rest of us.  Charismatics are similarly accused of bearing false or rotten fruit when studies suggest that on morality charismatics actually score higher than non-charismatics.  It seems, then, that so much of what has been presented by MacArthur and company has developed simply in reaction to excesses and errors and (serious) problems in parts of the community; but instead of taking a rational look at a very diverse movement they have over reacted and become guilty of such gross generalizations it has become difficult to take them seriously.

D. Fourth, it has become increasingly clear (to me) that terms need to be defined.  There are a great variety of opinions on both sides of this debate, and often they end up talking past each other because no one seems to agree on what exactly these terms mean.  The fact is, there are many in the cessationist camp who are nowhere near as extreme in their views on the subject as is John MacArthur.  Very few, for example, would suggest – as MacArthur does - that the task of the preacher is simply to present truth, and that when truth has been presented faithfully and truthfully the man's job is done.  Rather, most cessationists would insist with the Paul that anything less than a message presented in demonstration of the Spirit and power is not preaching at all (see for example, Robert Dabney in his Evangelical Eloquence). 

E. Fifth, there are various streams of tradition on both sides.  Among cessationists there are dispensationalists and there are the reformed.  Among continuists there are dispensationalists and reformed and sometimes everything in between.  Some of us think that dispensationalism (in some of its forms) is heresy even if we dearly love our dispensationalist brothers; and yet the truth is that charismatics can be found in every stream.  So, to simply ‘lump’ them all in one category is far too simplistic.

F. Sixth, Brown is right to observe how prone we are in the Christian community to be divisive.  There is enough that divides us already, and we need to be exceedingly careful when we name names and call out heresies, heretics and false prophets.  These things must be done, but more caution should be exercised than was recently exercised at the conference.  Similarly, it is very wrong to implicate people simply by their associations and friendships.  If it were possible to be guilty merely by association many of us would be guilty of a whole host of sins and heresies for which we have no affinity whatsoever!  For reasons of their own I have dear friends who have chosen to remain in formal alliance with those who teach error.  While I don’t agree with what seems a position of compromise, I love these brothers even as they remain in these denominations where sin and heresy are not being dealt with.  Others – most of us! – have friendships with those with whom we greatly differ.  I could not call myself his friend (and truthfully, I would not have sat with him on a ministerial nor partnered with him in ministry), but I enjoyed what fellowship I did have with Clark Pinnock; and in spite of the doctrines (and even heresies) he espoused I loved him as a brother in the Lord. 
 
Somehow, we need to be more careful, more cautious and more loving when dealing with those with whom we disagree.  Even in our stand for truth there is a loving and gracious way that would contribute so much more to the advancement of the kingdom.   I don’t believe for a moment that we should attempt to erase denominational differences - I think even the names are helpful and necessary - nor do I believe we should shrink from our proclamation of the whole truth, nor should we hesitate to confront error; but caution should be exercised and Greenburg’s advice (quoted in Authentic Fire) is worth heeding: “Don’t compare the best things about your religion [or ideology] to the worst things about someone else’s.” 

G. Finally, we have a great deal to learn from our charismatic brothers whether or not we decide to rethink cessationism.  Having spent time on the mission field, in non-denominational charismatic churches, Pentecostal churches, Baptist churches and reformed churches I know that orthodoxy and spiritual barrenness often go hand in hand.  I love reformed theology, but it is not by accident that we have come to be known as the ‘frozen chosen’.  How many of us have participated in all night prayer meetings?  How many of us have been part of worship services where time seemed to stand still and the cry of every heart was for more of God?  We love the theology of Jonathan Edwards, John Owen and Samuel Rutherford, but I can’t help wondering how many in our reformed churches have encountered God like these men did? 
 
Edwards like many before him and since could speak of seasons of prayer where he was so overcome by a sense of the glory and majesty of God in Christ that for the space of an hour he wept a flood of tears.  And while in the charismatic community there has often been a seeking after God and a crying out for His presence, while in the charismatic community prayer meetings have often been highly esteemed and well attended, and while in the charismatic community it is not uncommon for people to shout for joy and weep with heart longings for Jesus, many in our community are total strangers to such things - and yet hardly even aware of our barrenness.  But... we're right. 

Are we really satisfied being merely right?  Are we not willing to learn from and be challenged by godly men and women of the ‘other’ community who's intense love for the Lord often shames our own? 

I have to confess that reading Michael Brown’s book I was struck by how complacent I have become.  He writes, “I have met more than enough students who used to be passionate in their walks with the Lord but got so heady and theological that they became a mere shadow of their former selves.”   The tendency may be in all us.  I have certainly seen it my own life.  Somehow a passion for theology can gradually and subtly eclipse every other love, until being right is more important than the presence of God. 

Last night I put the book down and stayed up into the night praying and weeping.  I don’t agree with everything Brown said, and in some ways we are very far apart theologically – but I heard his passion and his plea, and the Holy Spirit brought it home to my heart.  I pray that the fire that has begun (by God’s grace) to burn again in my heart would burn all the brighter in the days and months to come; but I pray, too, for the greater cessationist 'family' that we would be more careful, less divisive and more willing to learn from our brothers in Christ. 

Let’s admit that error and immorality abound in some parts of the charismatic community, but let’s also recognize that there is a great deal we can learn from them.  And as we pray for them and even at times confront them, let us also be careful that we take heed to ourselves.     

“You can have all of your doctrines right – yet still not have the presence of God.”  - Leonard Ravenhill     

Friday, 14 February 2014

Romans 14.10-23 - Questions of Conscience: Matters of Indifference, the Rule of Faith and the Kingdom of God

(This is the third in a series of three sermons on Romans 14.  See parts 1 and 2 here and here).

12 So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. 13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.
 
14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. 15 Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; 17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For he who serves Christ in these things[e] is acceptable to God and approved by men.

19 Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. 21 It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.[f] 22 Do you have faith?[g] Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. 23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.[h]

Three of the most important rules of interpretation can be summed up with the acronym CSI. 

1. First, an individual verse should be understand within its immediate (C) context, which includes the verses immediately before and after and includes of course all that is said in any given letter. 

2. Second, an individual verse should be understood within the larger context of (S) Scripture.  We call this the analogy of faith.  Believing that the Bible is the product of one Author we think it important to consult the rest of scripture when trying to understand any given passage. 

3. Third, the (I) implicit ideas or verses that are less clear should be explained and interpreted by explicit ideas or verses that are more clear.  Jesus made it explicitly clear and left not an ounce of doubt that between heaven and hell there is a great gulf fixed so that there is no going back and forth between the two, which means that whatever 1 Peter may seem to imply in its description of Jesus preaching unto the spirits in prison it cannot mean He was giving them a second chance and chance then to escape hell and go to heaven…

So remembering those principles keep in mind that Paul through this section is dealing with doubtful disputations.  The ESV translates it 'opinions', but if you look at how the NT uses this word you will find that in almost every case the ‘deliberations’ or ‘reasonings’ or 'opinions' are the kind of disputes that are unproductive because about things that are indifferent.  They are neither essential nor are they inessential… (a) essential things are called essential because if we are wrong on them our very salvation is in jeopardy; whereas the (b) inessential things are called inessential not because they are unimportant but because they do not put our salvation in jeopardy.  Deciding who should get baptized and whether its okay to tell a lie when Nazis come to the door looking for Jews is important but not essential.   To go wrong here is to be guilty of sin, so we do want to be careful and thoughtful and prayerful; but it is not to going to ruin us and prevent us from entering the kingdom of heaven.

But as we work our way through this section we must remember that we are not talking either about essential or inessential things.  The category here are things in which we have freedom; and remember that Paul has addressed two groups.  First, the weaker brothers who think they cannot have or enjoy things that they can are told not to judge brothers who do enjoy them.  Scripture hasn’t forbidden alcoholic beverages (for instance), so even if you thing it is wrong for a Christian to touch them don’t judge someone who does.  Second, the stronger brothers who enjoy their freedom are to be careful that they do not look down on or set at nought their brothers who feel that these things are wrong.  Scripture may not have forbidden alcohol and I may enjoy it but I ought not despise a brother who feels it is sinful.

Paul has listed some of his reasons for urging this on both sides.  First, simply the fact that they are matters of indifference suggests it is wrong to become contentious about them.  Second, we have a Master to whom we stand or fall and that master is not our Christian brother, whether older than ust, whether smarter than us, or whether an elder or a pastor.  Our Master is God.  Third, we live to the Lord, and the one who enjoys His freedom enjoys it to the Lord, whereas the one who doesn’t doesn’t to the Lord; and Paul’s examples, you remember, have been food and days because both were tied to the ceremonial law which while it was very important to be observed in the OT was now all put aside as no longer necessary.

Remember that Paul’s list of shadows in Colossians included “meat, or in drink or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days”  We see many of the same items listed when Isaiah rebuked the people for their new moons, their Sabbaths and their feasts which wearied God  (Isaiah 1. 13-14). Keep in mind that God never expressed weariness with observance of any part of His moral law. He never rebuked them for carefully observing any one of the commandments and the very prophet (Isaiah) who rebuked them for their empty rituals including feasts, new moons and Sabbaths later rebuked them for neglecting the Sabbath (see chapter 56.2, 6). So its obvious there is a distinction between made here between two parts of the law.

We’ve watched Paul do the same.  In chapter 13 (of Romans) he quoted from the Old Testament law when said “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” and he said that this statement was a summary of another very familiar part of the OT law and he quoted that too, “Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill…" and so on (including in his list all the commandments in the 2nd table of the law minus the last).   These laws we are to obey, but in chapter 14 he has named other parts of the OT law that needn’t anymore be obeyed.  So, there is a clear distinction and this will help us sort out what he is talking about.

In 1 Corinthians (ch. 5) Paul makes it plain there are matters about which we are to judge a brother, and to Timothy he urged him to hold fast the very form of sound words which he had heard from Paul.  So where God doesn’t give freedom, where God has spoken and commanded, we don’t have freedom to do as we please, though it is expected that if we are regenerated it will please us to do as commanded; but now here it is things that are indifferent that are under consideration and it is very revealing that Paul uses the ceremonial law as his illustration…

[On the Sabbath and the question of days go here]

Sorting out what Paul is dealing with is one thing, but once we begin to have an idea of what belongs in this (indifferent) category it is important to notice his arguments and his reasonings and some of the consequences.

A. Paul in verse 10 adds another reason why there should be neither judging or setting at nought when it comes to these things.  He says, in effect, “why would you judge them or look down on them when they are going to have to stand at the judgment seat of Christ?”  It is not our position to judge them.  It is to God and to God alone that they stand.  How foolish we sometimes are.  We meet a brother who conscientiously avoids this or that thing, and we decide they’re narrow and immature, and we assign to them a spiritual value thinking them beneath us when they are dearly loved by God and will one day answer alone to Him. 

We meet a brother who indulges in something that we have decided is not safe, or something we think unchristian and decide he is ungodly and maybe even not Christian; and Paul is saying it is this judging that is unChristian.  We have not been called or ask to sit as judges over the Christianity of others around us; they will stand at the judgment, and so we leave it to God to judge.

B.  Next, Paul goes on to say there is nothing unclean in itself.  How foolish to judge someone else for what they are eating or drinking when everything has been made clean.  There certainly was a time when some of these things were considered unclean, but that time has past.  The Lord Jesus has said it is clean (see Acts 10); Paul will go in his letter to Timothy to say that every creature of God is good (see 1 Timothy 4).  There’s no need to refuse any of it. 

Now, why does he talk  about this here?  Again, the context provides the answer.  The reason for dealing with this here is the mosaic law which had once forbidden such things, that old dispensation of shadows and types is abolished.  The covenant of grace is no longer administered in pictures.

Which means we had better not begin reintroducing food laws.  Don’t begin to require Christians to avoid certain meats or to cook their meat a certain way.  Here is one of the great advantages of this dispensation of the covenant, that all that mosaic system of laws has ceased.  It has no reason to exist, and our freedom in Christ now is a glorious freedom.  While our freedom in the Lord means freedom from the power of Satan and freedom from the reign of sin, it also means freedom from that complex system of regulations that was such a burden on the Jews.  You don’t have to worry next time you sit down to eat.  All things are yours in Christ.  This is the good that Paul speaks of in verse 16.  It is good to be free from a system of rules that did not require what was good in and of itself. 

In a moment Paul will summarize this with a definition of the kingdom of God.  But there’s some additional considerations added here that we need to make sure we pay attention. 

a) First, he says “no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way… if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably.  Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.”  This is very strong language.  Don’t destroy him he says.  In other words, by enjoying your liberty it is possible to destroy another, to cause him to so stumble that he makes shipwreck of his faith.

And so while Paul would encourage us to enjoy our freedom here he urges caution.  This is entirely consistent with the decision made in Acts 15 to encourage the churches to avoid meats offered to idols and from blood and from things strangled because at that time there were many weaker brothers who felt this was sin, and so to go on enjoying these things in front of them would have proved  damaging.  Better to avoid them.

Remember these are indifferent things!  If I can enjoy them I can also manage to live without them.   I wish the church were consistent here.  There are times when people are convinced that something is indifferent and then instead of admitting they can live without it they foist it upon the rest of the church - because they believe it is indifferent.   If it is in your mind truly indifferent why force it on others who do not think it is? 

Why when you know that someone has a problem with alcohol would you advertise your love for a beer?  Why if you know they think all tobacco is wicked would you pull out a cigar in front of them?  Be wise.  Know your brothers in the Lord and do all you can to avoid placing stumbling blocks in front of them.

b) But, second, recognize that while these things are indifferent, while freedom has been given so that they are allowed by God himself, if a person is convinced that it is wrong for them to go ahead and to do it is sin for them.  “And he that doubeth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith...”  In fact, Paul takes it further...

Suppose you aren’t fully convinced either way.  You’re not fully persuaded it is wrong; but on the other had you have doubts as to whether or not it is right.  In that case it is safer and better to abstain.  In other words, when you are in doubt about the lawfulness of something it is far better for you to miss out on a bit of freedom, far better to lose out on something that you have already admitted is doubtful than become guilty of sin by acting without faith.  If the Church believed this I would expect to see a whole lot more head coverings among the women; and I don't say that because I believe the  meaning and application of 1 Corinthians 11 would suddenly become clear [nor is this meant to be understood as my own position on the subject].   Nor do I believe the debate will soon  (or suddenly) be solved.  Rather, it seems obvious that if we were consistent, and if we acted on this principle the many women who are not sure about the subject would find themselves compelled to wear coverings because to do otherwise would be to act without faith. 

"Though men condemn us, it is well enough if our own hearts condemn us not (1 John 3. 21)."

In other words, there is a very grave danger here in doing things they way I do them only because Mom and Dad taught me or because the pastor and elders said so.  Do you see how necessary from this text it is for you to be thorough and zealous in your study of Scripture?  How necessary to pray before rushing to decision - to seek understanding and conviction rather being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine.

But please don’t mistake me and don’t mistake Paul!  Just because your conscience isn’t troubled by something doesn’t mean it isn’t sinful… the very problem of the unregenerate is that their consciences are so hardened; and Christians though indwelt by the Spirit do not suddenly and instantly have light on everything.  Instead they must seek to educate their consciences by studying the Scriptures and practising obedience in ways they already know.

To assume from this text, for example, that for one person it is sinful to baptize babies and for another it isn’t (so long as they each act in faith!) is absurd.  It either is or it isn’t.  A man might as well say it is sinful for one person to commit adultery and not sinful for another depending on what their conscience is saying.

The context, remember, is doubtful things, and Paul is particularly concerned with the question of whether this or that thing is permissible; and what he is saying is that if you can’t act on faith, if you aren’t sure it is then don’t do it… If you’re not sure about the theatres don’t go until you are; if you aren’t sure about playing cards don’t do it just because someone told you its okay.  Seek understanding and act only faith.  If you’re not sure about wine and beer stay away from it.

c) But then, third, remember in all this that as much as you may have questions and concerns and worries and troubles about food and drink this isn’t what the kingdom of God is about.  It is about righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.  It is not what comes in what comes out, because it is what comes that reveals what is in the heart.  For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings...

There is an appeal to external religion.  Men are prone to cling to things that are external because we like what is tangible; and quite honestly, external religion is flattering.  But the kingdom of God is not about such things.  In fact, if we take Paul seriously we must believe that what you (and I) eat or drink really has nothing to do with what is to be Christian.

What is the Christian about?  What are the priorities of the kingdom?  First, righteousness… and the only standard of righteousness we have been given is the one provided in the 10 commandments and summarized in Deuteronomy and Leviticus and by our Lord Jesus.  Ot is love for God and love for our neighbour as explained in first and second tables of the law.  So, if you’re going to prioritize something, and give your heart and mind to studying a way of life that will honour God – study the commandments.

Second, peace.  Not only peace with God but with others; which means not being contentious over doubtful disputations! This is an important observation for Paul to  make.  Here you have people arguing over things they believe are tremendously important and they are indifferent.  They can go either way; and yet when it comes to the matters of the kingdom they’re going wrong – there is no peace.  Instead they are fighting and bickering and dividing and the tragic irony is that it is over things that have nothing to do with the kingdom of God!

And this is what happens when churches make a big deal about the Bible translation and insist it can only be the KJV; or when churches insist that no one in their congregation drink wine or no one in their congregation watch television and go to the movies.  And the church divides, all kinds of energy is exerted, unkind things are said, people no longer have fellowship with one another, and where is the peace? Ironically, the kingdom of God isn’t about those things, but it is about peace among brothers.

Third, where there is the kingdom of God there is joy.  You see the kingdom of God is where the will of God is done.  It is where men and women believe with their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord.  And where this is a reality joy is a natural fruit and by product.  Its not optional.  There’s a whole litany of things that are optional, but this isn’t one of them – study, then, to know joy that when Paul says rejoie in the Lord always you may answer in the Lord that you do and will rejoice.

The beautiful thing about this list is that they all go hand in hand.  Where there is righteousness there will be peace and there will be joy… but just as much as peace and joy cannot be worked up neither can righteousness.  It may be commanded, but it is impossible apart from union with Jesus.

You see here is a crucial consideration that we dare not miss.  Paul’s concern in this letter from front to back is the gospel.  The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth… where it is believed lives are changed, and victory is given in through Jesus Christ.  Men no matter their age, ability, education are put in Christ and so crucified with Him, buried with Him and risen with Him, so that they no longer walk after the flesh but after the  spirit.  Whereas the carnal mind is enmity against God because it is not subject to the law of God the spiritual man is God’s friend and therefore subject to the law of God desiring and delighting in it.  But all this is so very different from religion...
 
Anyone can do religion because religion is about externals: meat and drink.  Only God, however can do Christianity.  Only God can take a man at enmity with Him, rebelling against His law and turn Him around so that he wants to worship God alone and wants to lay down His life in obedience to Him. And yet this is the wonderful promise of the gospel to all who believe!  That they will inherit the kingdom of God, they will do righteousness, they will know peace and they will have joy.

Anyone can prescribe rules, but only God change hearts; and this then is the nature of life in the kingdom.  All who are in that kingdom are united to Jesus, and so all are (!) marked by these three qualities; and suddenly (as a pastor pointed out to me the other day) Exodus 20 isn’t only a list of commands - it is a list of promises: that you will have no other gods and you will make  no graven images, and you will not take His name in vain, and you will keep and delight in the Sabbath, and you will honour parents, and you will not kill, you will not commit adultery... and this while only partly realized here will be perfectly realized in glory.  Praise God.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Romans 14.5-9 - Questions of Conscience: Cigars, Beer, the KJV and the Glory of God

5 qOne person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. rEach one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since she gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For tnone of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, uwhether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9 For to this end Christ vdied and lived again, that he might be Lord both wof the dead and of the living.

So far Paul has been talking about matters that would be considered indifferent.  In other words, the Bible allows freedom either explicitly or by its silence.  On these things Paul has been very clear: the Christian who feels conscience bound on such things isn’t to be condemned.  We ought not to look down on such a person even if we know and understand that alcohol (for example) is not forbidden or that translations other than the KJV are not forbidden.  The Christian, on the other hand, who doesn’t feel conscience bound on such things and who is enjoying his freedom, enjoying his wine, enjoying another translation of the Bible should not be judged by those who believe otherwise.

Please notice that Paul doesn’t say it like this:

“Roman Christians, don’t you judge your brother who is enjoying his freedom because he’s right and you’re wrong…”

He’s much wiser than that and more concerned here with principles.  As he will demonstrate in verse 14 some of these things that were dividing believers at that time shouldn’t have because freedom had been given them and so the weaker brothers were wrong!  But that’s not why they are told not to judge.  They are told not to judge, rather, because (a) first this is a doubtful disputation, (b) second a man’s master is God and it is to him that they stand or fall and (c) as he says in verse 10 they will stand at the judgement seat of Christ one day and they will be judged not by you or I but by Christ.

But, now Paul makes a significant point that is connected with everything else but which is also a principle that is going to apply not only to the question of doubtful disputations but the whole of a Christian’s life.  Here is another reason not to despise the man who feels compelled to make a day holy that God has not called holy or to judge the man who doesn’t.   Its another reason, says Paul, not to despise the man who feels bound not to eat or to judge the man who eats, “for none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.”

Now the explanation comes in the next verse.  What he’s getting at is that rather than living and dying to ourselves we live and die unto the Lord.  We are His!  And this is, he says, is the very end for which Jesus died and rose that (!) He might be Lord both of the dead and the living.  In other words, and critically important, the idea of His rescuing His people and transporting them out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light is that they might serve Him and live for Him.  Our bondage before was a captivity to sin and to Satan, and the entire reason for rescue was that from this point - the point of our rescue - on we might live as slaves to righteousness and servants of Jesus Christ.  This Jesus is Lord, and the testimony of Scripture is not only that He is King and Lord over all, but that He has bought us who are peculiarly His at the cost of His own blood – in no sense are we are own.

And this then is what Paul is saying here in verse 7.  We do not live to ourselves!  Robert Haldane (in his commentary on Romans) writes “But is it not obvious that most people have no conception of living but to themselves?  Do not the mass of mankind follow their own interest to the neglect of the authority of God?  Even among those who make a profession of religion, how few are there who follow the Lord at the expense of any great temporal sacrifice?  Nay, are not many induced to act inconsistently with the character of a Christian for every trifle?” 

Now this is a fascinating point and even more so when we consider where Paul made it.  Here we are  discussing disputations that are doubtful.  The whole context of this passage has to do with discussions about things about which we are free to go either way.  He’s been stressing not only the freedom we have to do as we please but the need for caution in our dealings with others who differ with us on such things. 

 
And yet, now having said all that Paul adds this: that none of us lives to himself.  Just when you might have been thinking that Paul means to say that some things you do are really just entirely up to you and that they are really aren’t at all important to think about or pray about he adds this...

So you may have freedom: freedom to drink alcohol, freedom to smoke a cigar, freedom to play a game of cards, watch some television… but that does not mean that you are free to live to yourself.   And now we’re no longer just dealing with this or that debate.  Rather, Paul has given us a crucial principle that that drives to the very heart of what it is to be Christian.  All this talk about things that are doubtful and indifferent might just lead you to the conclusion that on some things you needn’t consult the glory of God; that there are some things that He is concerned about and others that He couldn’t care less about.

That is actually not at all the case.  In fact, this is being used by Paul now as an argument for why we should be careful neither to despise nor judge someone else: that when a man treats Christmas (for example) as a holy day or when a man will not touch alcohol, as a Christian he is doing this to the glory of God!  As much as we may be able to say that he is weak because wrong, we must be so very careful that we do not despise him because he is acting out of respect and concern for the honour of his King.  The same is true the other way around.  That Christian who does drink does it to the glory of God; that pipe he smoked was not to himself or for himself alone but in reverence and love for God.

So, can this actually be true?  Can you really drink a beer or smoke a pipe to the glory of God?

Here’s the Biblical answer: if you cannot do it to the glory of God then why are you doing it? Whether you eat or drink it is to be done for Him and for His praise.  There is nothing that is to be done merely for me or merely for you.  Nothing is only yours and designed simply for your personal and private enjoyment.  This one of the reasons I would urge such caution in the use of things like video games, because typically they have no other purpose but personal and private enjoyment, and I would suggest then that it is extremely difficult to do them truly for Him!

But, this isn’t anymore about a few select issues; this is a principle that touches the whole of the Christian’s life.  At no (!) point do we live to ourselves.  We live to God.  We are His, and everything we do from the most significant to the most mundane is to be done with an eye to Him; which includes who you marry and what you eat. It includes brushing your teeth, having a beer and smoking a pipe.

Robert Haldane says, the man, as far as he lives to himself, “he acts inconsistently with his character…” It is not in the character of the Christian to act as if his life were his own to do with it whatever pleased him.  It was the orientation of our past life that took no consideration of God in what we did, and that failed to do things as for Him.  This is the very root of the problem with the unregenerate; that there is nothing they do for the glory of God; and fundamentally what changes in that miracle of regeneration is this: that in mind and in will and heart the man or woman is turned completely around in this way especially.

So, as a Christian in my mind I understand that God is a great and lovely and worthy being who deserves from His creatures love and praise and honour in all their parts in all their actions.  In my heart I want this to be so.  I want to live so as to bring Him praise, I want to honour and extol Him and love Him in the very act of breathing: that everything would in some way somehow honour Him.  And in my will I will it; I begin to act on it. 

So, I may have tremendous freedom to do this particular thing or to do that particular thing, but my freedom is to be used for Him – always at all times and in all ways; and if I am His this is a mark and proof it.  Here is evidence that my profession of faith is real and not spurious, and the evidence is that I don’t object to this but I want it and desire it above all other things…

By the grace of God can you say this?  I have often urged you to make your calling and election sure because the Scriptures urge you to do so, and because there have been many like you who believed like you do that they were saved and they found out only too late they weren’t.  Can you say this?  You can say many other things, but can you say that you don’t want to live to yourself but that you (do) want to live for Him?   

You see what is most disturbing about current trends is the shift away from this definition of Christianity.  Too often the arguments start and end at themes people believe God is concerned about as if there is an end to the things that matter to Him; as if there are parts of our lives that deserve to be examined under the light of God’s Word and other parts that belong only to us; when in reality the most fundamentally characteristic trait of the Christian is that he is not his own… ever!

And so when I turn on the TV, or open a book, or poor a glass of juice or wine, in all these trivial things as well as the momentous things it should be my rule that I do it for His glory.  And things that cannot be done to Him must be put away.

Now the beauty of this is that we learn from Paul that eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God.  Some things cannot – but our family (for instance) loves to play a board game called Sorry! And while we have often failed to use it for Him, I do believe that this is a game that can be played together for God’s glory; I do sincerely believe that a pipe or a cigar or a beer or glass of wine or whisky can be enjoyed to the glory of God [even if I personally find the taste of most alcoholic beverages offensive]. But you see Paul says that all things are yours in the Lord Jesus.  There is nothing He has made that is sinful in itself, and it is all ours for Jesus’ sake so long as it is used out of a love for Him, enjoying Him and loving Him and honouring Him in the midst of it.

But our sin is that so often so many things are done with no regard for Him at all and this is so very different from the intent of the gospel, which proclaims freedom in Christ from a life of serving self to a joy and happy life of living for Him.  It is trading one kind of slavery for another, but it is called freedom because there is nothing happier than a life totally resigned to God.

Do you know that feeling you get when you have eaten too much candy or dessert and you feel a bit rotten, or when you have watched too much television and you come feeling worse for it?  You see, this is never the problem when time is poured out for Him.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism wisely says that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever because these things go together.  As we glorify Him we enjoy Him, and as we enjoy Him we glorify Him.  And this is so much better, so much happier, so much more meaningful a life then one spent on ourselves.

So we go back to the division between (a) essentials, (b) inessentials and (c) indifferent [more on this later], but here now is a principle to apply to the whole of it: at no point do I live to myself.  All that I am is His, all that I do then must be in subjection to Him and so I should have regard for His will in everything and also an eye to His honour and praise in everything.  I am not just asking "can I get away this?", but can I do this this thing in such a way that will give Him delight, in such a way that will come before Him as a sacrifice of praise, and that will honour Him before men?

What would change if you began to live like that; if you no longer lived for yourself but lived as you were meant to live for Him; if you saw it rather as your mission in life to honour Him in everything! What would go?  What would stay?  And of the things that stayed how would your participation in them change?  How would you do them differently? 

Do you want to pin point the difference between the religion of a Pharisee and the religion of the Christian?  It is right here.  The Pharisee in his religion is concerned with his own safety, and he will certainly study theology and learn what is required of him and dutifully do those things that are required.  But that’s all.  There are certain parts of his life you dare not touch.  And having introduced the theme that Paul here introduces you will find that the Pharisee cannot get behind it.  He was okay when his religion could be kept here and here, but this seems so invasive and far from relishing the thought and rejoicing in the idea of a life that in every way is squeezed out for Jesus it sounds horribly depressing to him because he sees only what he will lose.

Test yourself today. The church accepts your profession because we cannot go beyond that, so look for marks of regeneration.  Have you changed in this fundamental way?  You fail perhaps, but this is what you dearly want.  Is that true?  And if it is true that this is what you dearly want and you mean it and your sorrow is the kind that leads to repentance let me plead with you to bear fruit in keeping with repentance.  Begin by the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit to glorify God as you enjoy Him in the Lord Jesus, and begin to do this in all (!) things.