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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Paul's Warning On Passing Eternal Judgments Over Disputable Matters

Passage: Romans 14:1-12

I’m sure many of us could tell a story or two, of the knowledge of people being thrown out of congregations or having their name ridiculed to others for not towing a particular traditional line over a preference or disputable matter. But when we consider the biblical teaching over how to handle disputable matters, we see a grave warning on passing eternal judgments over them.

Nothing is new under the sun. The fact that the church has had to deal with disputable matters and preferences has been a reality since the dawn of the people of God; and certainly the new covenant era is no different. The 1st-century church in Rome had to deal with the fact that there was meat being sold in the market place after it was sacrificed to false idols. Some Christians were purchasing it and eating it, some were not (and became vegetarians). The ones who were not were then critical of those who were; and those who were, were critical of those who were not. There were also special days for some; but not for others; and they were obviously arguing over them as well.

But it was more than simple argument or disagreement over preferences. It was deeper than that. Apparently the arguments in the church reached the point where people on either side of a matter were passing eternal judgments on the other. And this is where Paul stepped in.

Paul realized that in some things we have no clear directives. The Lord has not spoken on some (many!) disputable matters and traditional preferences. So then, if you are “fully convinced in [your] own mind” (v5) and you do it for and to the glory of God (v6) on either side of a disputable matter, then let that rest; because the Lord knows the hearts of men. The Lord knows why, and what thoughts are going on, and what kind of heart and mind are involved in a certain decision to do or not to do something by preference.

Here is the reality: The Word of God was not given to us to answer every single nit-picky question about life and practice. What God has given us in His Word is sufficient. An in this sufficiency are matters he is VERY clear on as well as matters that he just leaves to freedom (or, in one way or the other is not necessarily right or wrong). God has allowed for freedom in some things, and in that freedom are undefined, "grey" areas pertaining to life and the Christian walk.

[Note: I would consider disputable matters to be second or third order issues; whereas first order issues are not disputable. For what I mean, see this article on the need for a doctrinal triage.]

And so the warning comes in v10: “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”

Notice where Paul brings the reader here. If we judge to a level of utterly despising or rejecting a brother or sister (synonymous to casting an eternal judgment on them in your mind) because of a difference of belief or preference on a disputable matter, are we prepared to face the same in the end?

Again he reminds us: “So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God,” (v12). Paul is being clear that passing such a radical judgment upon someone over a disputable matter means that in the end the one doing so will face the same level of judgment. In other words: we better be really sure we are correct in our eternal judgments on disputable matters (if we make them); because if we’re not… well… as Jesus taught: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you,” (Matt 7:2).

This is a silly example, (and quite ridiculous when compared to what those in Rome were dealing with); but I heard a story of a person who was basically kicked out of a Christian community because he would not condemn those who worshiped with instruments. While he was very clear that he preferred a-cappella and wasn’t keen on instruments, he maintained that he could not condemn others for using them. In effect, he could accept that in this disputable matter, he could be a-cappella to the glory of the Lord; and others could use instruments to the glory of the Lord. Each could be convinced in their own mind as the NT teaching on this is not clear, and the Lord knows the hearts of all involved and will judge accordingly.

But this was not good enough for others. Because this individual would not condemn others for using instruments, HE was then condemned, ostracized, and expelled from the area.

So, Paul would ask: Are they who passed an eternal judgment upon this brother (utterly despising and rejecting him) simply because he would not pass an eternal judgment on others over a disputable matter prepared to face the same level of judgment by God Almighty? Am I? Are you?

This is where Paul, by the Holy Spirit, takes us in regards to disputable matters: to the Throne of God.

Notice that Paul doesn't argue against having held beliefs or preferences regarding debatable issues. There is nothing wrong with that at all. What Paul warns against is using those beliefs or preferences regarding debatable issues as eternal determiners.

And thankfully, we always have the Gospel. And for those who have passed an eternal judgment on another over a disputable matter, there is still the cross and the empty tomb. Therefore, apologize to your brother or sister, admit the fault, repent to God, and such will be the gracious measure to you in the end.

Rest in this peace. The Good News always wins.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Regarding the Practice of Christian Love and Unity: Part 2 - Regarding Unity and Why It Matters

This is part 2 of a 2-part series. Part 1 ("Regarding Love") is here.

Regarding Unity:
Like the issue of love, we are not talking about unity the way the world puts forth unity (subjective, tainted, and even unity for unity sake). As Christians we do not make unity an idol (it is not ultimately what we serve); and we do not seek unity at all costs (at the expense of Truth, for example). Instead, we unite around what is objective, observable, deep, and eternal. We unite around Spirit and Truth.

Read John 17:20-21.

In this text, Jesus astonishingly says, in short, that our unity as believers leads to a consequence. We are united as brothers and sisters “so that (ἵνα) the world may believe that you have sent me.” That is, so that the world may believe that the Father sent the Son, we are united. We are united in faith, in purpose, and in mission. We are of the same mind, united in this way “so that” the world may believe that the Father really sent the Son (to accomplish His redemptive purpose). This is amazing!

Now let us understand what this means in the negative. Jesus is saying that disunity, then, is a testimony to the world we put forth that He did not actually come. This is incredible. We can claim to love God. We can claim that Christ came to redeem us. But if we live, speak, and act in a way of disunity or disharmony, our testimony is false.

Disunity and disharmony among the people of God means the world will have full justification to say: “Nuh uh; those things are not true. You do not love this ‘God’ and this ‘God’ certainly did not accomplish what you claim He did!”

That is huge.

Why it matters:
Not only is our testimony about the truth claims of what we are and what the Father accomplished on the line in our practice of love and unity; but consider our witness to the unbeliever.

Unbelievers; or, those who do not have a peaceful relationship with their Creator; that I have ministered to in the field have certain things in common. Most have very drama-filled lives. It’s all they know. It consumes them. Whether it is in their relationships with family, friends, work-related, etc.; there is little love and there is a heavy dose of disharmony, disunity, hatred, and confusion. And what I hear most often after building up trust in relationship with them is something I had not expected when moving to our location. They desire peace. It is not rare for someone to say to us, “You look like you have peace. Joy. Rest. And… I want that.”

Many people’s lives are consumed with everything but peace, joy, and rest.We are called to be a different community as the Bride of Christ.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have got to be different. If we look like what the unbeliever is so used to (lack of love, disunity, etc.) it is not hard to imagine them finally saying, “Why would I want to be a part of that? I have that here in my life already. You talk about love, peace, and unity; but you don’t live it. Therefore, I can’t believe what you claim about yourself, or what this 'God' did.”

While a struggle, many people who are separated from God are looking for a community where they may experience love, unity, joy, and peace. I firmly believe this is one of those “divine markers” placed inside each human; one of those things the writer of Ecclesiastes says when he speaks of God putting "eternity in man's heart," (Ecc 3:11).

And I believe this is what John and Jesus are getting at. Everything is for the glory of God in the accomplishment of Christ. Both John and Jesus are saying that if we fail to love and fail to live in unity, we are telling the world “God has done nothing. Go on your merry way.”

It is amazing what the Word of God puts on the line regarding the Christian practice of love and unity: Our very testimony of who we are and what God has accomplished in Christ. Let us, then, be drenched with this love and faithful unity from one another; and may it overflow toward one another; that the world will know that our testimony about ourselves and Christ is true.


Regarding the Practice of Christian Love and Unity: Part 1 - Regarding Love

It is amazing what the Word of God puts on the line regarding the Christian practice of love and unity. What is at stake are the truths about 1)who we claim to be as believers and followers of Jesus; and 2)our proclamation of what the Father has accomplished in Jesus the Christ.

Read that again: On the line in the Christian practice of love and unity are the truth claims of what we claim to be and what the Father has accomplished in Jesus Christ.

To explore this further, I’ll take the issues of love and unity one at a time.

Regarding Love:
When the Christian speaks of “love”, we do not regard it as the tainted, subjective, mushy love the world puts forth as its guide. When we speak of love; when the Bible speaks of love; we speak of and we recognize something objective, observable, deep, eternal, and foundational to life and relations as a Christian.

Read 1 John 4:7-21. Then observe the following:

John writes in verse 7 “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God”. Right there is a truth claim. Loving is the necessary consequence of being born of God and knowing God. John then sets the foundation of that love we have for one another as the love God displayed in sending Jesus as a propitiation for our sins explained in verses 9 and 10; then by saying “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another,” (v.11).

Verse 11, then, is our foundation. “If God so love us.” And did He? Has He? Does He? The Bible explains over and over again that yes(!), God does love us. John explains how so in verses 9 and 10. To expand on this thought we see Paul using a phrase he only uses once in all his letters in Ephesians 2:4-5; “because of His great love (πολλὴν ἀγάπην) with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – “.

God’s love; God’s "great love" for us is proven in what He accomplished in Christ, by His grace, for us. That is the foundation that John uses to then describe the practice of our love as Christians for one another.

Again, “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Because the first statement is true, the second statement necessarily follows.

Now take a look at this in the negative. John writes in 4:20 that “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar…” Similarly, we can take the reverse of 4:7 to say “if you hate your brother you have neither been born of God nor know God.”

Therefore, in not loving we can actually deny two key truths of Christianity.

The first denial is our very identity in Christ:
John says if you hate your brother or sister; if you do not love your brother or sister; you do not love God. John says, in effect, “I don’t care what you say with your lips! You can say ‘I love God’ all you want! But if you do not love your brother and sister, you are a liar. You do not really love God. You do not even know God. Your identity as a Christian is gone. It doesn’t exist!” That is what John is saying. So that’s the first thing we deny if we don’t love. You deny your very identity as a Christian.

The second thing we deny if we do not love is massive. If we do not love, we deny the claim of the work of God in Christ:
Reader, pay attention. As explained above, our love for one another is based upon the foundational truth of God’s love for us in Christ. So then if we fail to love our brothers and sisters we are in effect denying what God did for us in Christ. The premise of our love for each other is the fact that God sent His son to die for us. If we fail to love one another; we deny the claim of the premise. Where we might deny the effect; we deny the cause. If there is no effect, there is no cause.

(For example, if I fail to move from somebody pushing me; I can claim that somebody pushed me, but the evidence doesn’t show it. Therefore, you would have good reason to doubt I was even pushed, no matter how much I try and convince you I was.) In the same way, I can claim the Father’s work in Christ for me; but if I do not love my brother and sister, my claim is nullified. It is empty. It is false.

So to sum up: You can claim two things: “I love God” and “Christ died for me” – but John says you would in fact deny both of those statements if you did not love your brother and sister.

That’s huge.

Part 2 will be on unity; and why it all matters.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

To Truly Know God's Love You Must Value God's Wrath

We cannot know the Father’s love for Jesus or for us; nor can we truly love others, without recognizing the significance of God’s wrath poured out upon Jesus.

For many, the topic of the wrath of God is an uncomfortable one. The idea of the anger of the Almighty is almost too much to comprehend, and indeed it can (should?) be. For many, it is so unbearable to their idea of God that it is even opposed to the truth of God’s love; and even opposed to the person and teachings of Jesus the Messiah. But if we look at the Bible’s definition of God’s love, and even how Jesus helps us define it in relation to our love for one another, we find it is intrinsically linked to God's wrath (and it upon the person of Jesus the Messiah).

To put it another way, you cannot have God’s love without the veracity of God’s wrath (most notably upon the person of Jesus the Messiah).

This will not be comprehensive study, but I will begin by going to the most well known passage that defines God’s love. I will bold and underline key phrases and links along the way. 1 John 4:7-11 reads,
Beloved let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
[Nerdy but necessary: For the sake of defining terms, “propitiation” is a term used relating to appeasement in atonement to an offended party (i.e. God). The OT use of the term kaphar, for example, is almost always used for atonement in the context of quenching the wrath of God (notably, Num 25:11-13; others). So also in the NT hilasmos is used in verses like Rom 3:25 and Heb 2:17. Picking up on the theme of Paul’s argument in Rom 3:25 as well as the passages used in this entry, it is easy to define "propitiation" as “the appeasement of God’s wrath” (for sin).]

Moving on: Notice how Paul links God’s love with God’s wrath in Romans 5:6-11:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Again, God’s love was put on display through the act of propitiation. Paul cannot be clearer what that act of propitiation was to save us “from the wrath of God”. And it is only through this act “that we are reconciled”. Man to God.

Is this not the main point of the famous John 3:16? “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son…” Gave as a what? A propitiation. Again, God’s love is fundamentally linked to the giving of His Son as a wrath-removing sacrifice. This point is confirmed later in that section (John 3:36) which reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Hear what this is saying: Faith removes one from being under the wrath of God. Why? Because it was poured out on Jesus according to God’s love (3:16).

Amazingly, Jesus confirms this definition/identification of the love of God with propitiation within His own command for us to love one another:
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.’” (John 15:12-14) 
This passage is astounding. Like 1 John 4:7-11, this text says that our love for one another has within it the idea of substitution of Christ in our place; that is, the offering as a propitiation. In another place Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life…” John 10:17.

Here we have in Jesus’ own words that the fundamental definition of the love of God (towards Jesus and towards human beings in salvation) has as its basis His act of propitiation: that Jesus “[laid] down his life for his friends.” So not only is God’s love not without the act of the wrath of God upon Jesus, but our own love for one another has as its foundation the love-act of wrath-removal carried out by Jesus! "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another," (1 John 4:11).

Take a look how this is echoed in the famous Christ-humility passage, Phil 2:1-17. In part:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from lovehaving the same love… in humility count others more significant than yourselves… Christ humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross
And Paul links all this to his ministry of love… “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith.”

Read that again: Paul has as his basis for his love for the church in Philippi the fact that Jesus humbled Himself as a wrath-removing substitution. It’s everywhere.

Thus, there are two essential conclusions to this:
1) God’s love cannot be fully appreciated or understood without the recognition of God’s wrath upon Jesus at the cross.
2) Our love for one another that we are called to have as disciples of Jesus cannot be fully grasped without the recognition of God’s wrath upon Jesus at the cross.

I mentioned in the beginning that many believe the idea of God’s wrath is opposed to that of His love or even the person of Jesus and His teachings. But this position is not a biblical one. It is a position created by man. At its worst, it is idolatry whereby man creates a definition for a word (in this case, “love”) and then demands that God meet that created definition. If He doesn’t, He is no longer God. (how many times have you heard, “my god would never… [fill in the blank]”. This is idolatry. Scripture does not support it and as we see above, that position even stands opposed to elemental points of Scripture. Worse yet, opposing the doctrine of propitiation puts one in opposition to the person, work, and teachings of Jesus the Messiah.

God’s love is defined in the way the Word of God defines it. And the Word in the flesh, Jesus Christ, confirms it further. Let us love one another with that same love…

… no pressure.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Four Reasons Why Little or No Application in Sermons is a Good Thing

I don’t know that I’ve ever written on the act of preaching/teaching. But after doing it for some years now I have come to a conclusion that I know is not a popular one: Having little or no application is a good thing. Here are four reasons why.

1) My first inkling toward this thinking was, admittedly, knee-jerk. Sometimes (most of the time?) preachers would spend over half of their sermon on application; leaving very little time for exposition (digging in to the Word; using people, culture, context, etc. [not word studies!]) and thus the passing on of knowledge (head and heart) is limited. At the worst, I think it is plain laziness in study on the part of the preacher/teacher that brings this about. Soft on exposition usually signals very little study.

2) Secondly, and this is the more important of the two so far: Preaching application allows the listener to be lazy by discouraging self-reflection. Or, it can make a Pharisee in a room of tax collectors. If I preach a sermon, and at the end give 7 applications; someone in the audience can say to themselves toward the former, “Well, none of those 7 apply to me, this has nothing to do with me.” Or, for the latter, “Phew! I’m off the hook. But I sure do know Sam and Diane needed this one! Hope they were listening!”

Don’t think this doesn’t happen. It does. And again, it encourages laziness and Pharisaic tendencies on the part of the listener. Additionally, heavy application can re-enforce an image that the preacher/pastor is the one with all the answers. And well, if he doesn’t preach it, then it must not be so. Again, this is listener-laziness and an encourager of the much maligned leader/laity distinction.

3) Thirdly, the example of Jesus. While Jesus would use illustration heavily, He almost never used application (I’ll get to the Sermon on the Mount below). How many times did Jesus teach and leave the lesson open ended or with a hanging question? How often would He, by vague and even mysterious ways, tell His lessons? Ever heard of a parable? (It’s actually quite frustrating sometimes isn’t it?)

But it is clear that He would normally allow the listener to apply it to their own lives and situations without Him having to do it. And it is this approach that I have found most impactful. Hammer the exposition; use Aristotle’s modes of persuasion effectively and appropriately; and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work. God’s Word will not return to Him void. Sow the seed and allow God to do the work on the hearts and minds. 

This is why I love discipleship groups; especially when unbelievers enter. Because I know an objection to my objection on preaching application will be “well how will people see the Bible as relevant to their lives if we don’t tell them how it’s relevant to their lives!?” – But in preaching and in small discipleship groups while I am teaching a text, I always ask open-ended questions (leaving things hanging like Jesus did). And it is from these open-ended questions that I see most fruitful discussion and growth taking place. I don’t have to tell them how it applies to their lives. The wheels of the mind of each individual are in motion, and any true seeker will hear the question and apply the lessons of the Word to their day-to-day lives. I don’t have to always tell them how it applies. It just does. I don’t have to make the Bible relevant. It already is. And when unbelievers, especially, begin to see that; their hunger for more increases!

4) Lastly; and these are two hidden dangers. Too much application has the hazard of begetting legalism and can take people away from focus on Christ. To the latter point: I am currently preaching a 4-part series on Matthew 4:1-11 (the temptations of Jesus). Near the beginning of part 3, I said the following:
And so, in this series, we continue to look to Christ; and we are continuing to explore what it is He faced and how He overcame. That is the point. Christ overcame. This series we are going through is not just a pep talk and a step-by-step guide on how to overcome temptation and defeat sin in your life (ex: well if I do this, this, and this, I’ll be successful). Nor is this a “pull you up by your boot straps” sermon series (ex: if I try hard enough like Jesus did, I’ll be successful). No. Ultimately, this series is so that we will look to Christ and His victory; to see how He overcame for us in our place. Because though we believe, we will continue to sin in these bodies. Though we are being made more into His image and though we seek to please our God, our sanctification will never be fulfilled until that coming day. And so we look to Christ. We look to Christ alone because He is our victory now. He has overcome and by faith, we have overcome. It is His righteousness that we now possess by faith. It is not our own. It is His victory we have been given, not our own. And so through the battle of faith, which we have undertaken by claiming Christ as our King, we look to Christ alone and we give Him all the glory for His victory, which we now possess in Him alone
See the emphasis? Even though we will receive knowledge on how to defeat temptation and learn of the tactics of the Evil One, they are sub-points to the ultimate victory of Christ in our place in this moment of temptation. As I also said in the sermon, if Christ fails in this moment with Satan, Christianity is over. Forget about it. If Christ fails in Matthew 4:1-11 there isn’t any amount of victory over temptation that we would have that would bring us salvation and the Kingdom of God. Yes, we can gain knowledge on Satan’s tactics and our response to those tactics today; but the ultimate lesson in all of this is Jesus as the Son of God. We must become less; He must become greater. Look to Christ.

To the former point you may ask: “How can application turn me into a legalist?” And I admit this is subtle, but it can happen.

With a very cursory search online on the topic of application in sermons, I ran into an article by none other than Rick Warren. In it, he defends (seemingly with an ax to grind) heavy application. To do so, he points to the Sermon on the Mount (SoM). While I understand what he writes, I believe he overlooks the danger of legalism. For example: In using the SoM, Warren points to Jesus speaking to such things like “sharing eight secrets of genuine happiness” along with “living an exemplary lifestyle, controlling anger, restoring relationships” and that Jesus taught “how to give with the right attitude, how to pray, how to store up treasure in heaven, and how to overcome worry.” These things, to Warren, are all about application. As he wrote, Jesus “concludes with a simple story that emphasizes the importance of acting on what he’s taught: Put into practice what you’ve just learned!”

I agree. But not totally. Because there is no gospel there. It’s all about behavior modification. Therapuetic-Moralistic-Deism. It trends toward legalism. So while the SoM does teach these things and Jesus does use application (like “if you are made to walk one mile, walk two” and “pray for your enemies” etc.) – is that the point of the SoM? Is Jesus teaching some good advice for, as Warren says, “genuine happiness”? Warren, here, misses a central point of the SoM: We need a Savior! Not a way to live our best life now.

So while I would agree with Warren that the hearer needs to see the application and practicality of the Bible to their lives, and also agree that Jesus is pretty clear on the fact of putting into practice what He teaches; I would disagree with Warren by saying that specific application needs to come from the preacher/teacher to make it relevant. As I stated earlier: I don’t always have to tell them how it applies. It just does. I don’t have to make the Bible relevant. It already is. And in my experience, once engaged in such a discussion with believers and unbelievers, those whom the Lord our God has called (Acts 2:39) will see it; and they will want more. As Paul told Timothy: Preach the Word!

So yes, Warren, the Bible is the most exciting book in the entire world; and I also bemoan the boring approach many teachers/preachers take. But I believe the Bible is exciting on its own terms and by its own power. It doesn’t need me spoon-feeding the audience to make it so. Preach it with power and let God do His work.

Note that I am not saying an absolute “no” to application. What I’m saying is that little or no application is preferable. It’s not bad in and of itself, and I do use it (as did Jesus, some); and ministries that I respect have good tools for helpful application (example: 9Marks). However, when I do, I try and do so only to re-enforce major points or to address issues I know are present within the congregation that need to be specifically addressed. But I always try and leave plenty of open doors for the individual listener to apply it to their own lives.

Let that conviction happen. Let that rebuking happen. Let that edification happen. Let that encouragement happen. Let it happen from the Word. And when the hearer recognizes it themselves, the relevance of the Bible is made even more clear and impactful; and their faith and knowledge and application becomes more their own.

That’s what I see Jesus did. That’s what I want to do.

Extra Resource: John MacArthur on why he doesn't use much application. 


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Philemon: Paul as Christ Figure and the Matter of Substitution

As I had written in my last post, the little letter from Paul to Philemon, only 25 verses in today’s texts, holds treasures of meaning. Previously I addressed v.15-16a and God’s sovereignty through sin for the salvation of Onesimus. Today I will address v.18-19a, which reads,
If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it…

By way of introduction, I will repeat how I began the previous post: Onesimus was a slave/servant of Philemon, who had a house church in the city of Colossae (v.1-2, cf. v.23-24 w/Col 4:7-17). Onesimus escaped his earthly-master, stole some goods on the way (v.18), and intended to disappear into the big city of Rome. It was not hard for runaways to disappear in Rome.

But somehow, and in some way, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, who was in prison (v.1, cf. Acts 28:16-30), and became a believer in Christ (v.10, 16). Paul, wanting to do right by Philemon, and in considering Onesimus’ new birth; seeks reconciliation between the two men who are now brothers in Christ (v.8-17; namely v.15-16). Paul wants to put things right for the sake of not only Onesimus, but for the church in Philemon’s home. Onesimus would have obviously caused a stink upon escaping!

Paul seeks, above all things, reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. Up to verse 18, Paul has: greeted Philemon and the church as a prisoner of Christ Jesus (v.1-3); shown and reminded Philemon what he thinks of him and who he is in Christ (v.4-7); and by way of relational and spiritual rhetoric, appealed to Philemon for the sake of reconciliation with Onesimus (v.8-16). In verse 17 Paul writes that if Philemon considers Paul to be his partner (which points to the other connections they have [friend, v.1; fellow worker, v.1; brother vv.7,20]), then he will receive Onesimus in like terms. In other words, rejecting Onesimus back would be a rejection of Paul.

This leads well into Paul functioning as a Christ-figure (v.18-19a). From the words in v.18-19a, it is clear that Onesimus escaping resulted in losses for Philemon (and the house church?). Perhaps the losses were just due to the loss of labor and having to hire a new servant. But most believe (as do I) that Onesimus had actually stolen things as he escaped. So not only was Onesimus an illegal escapee, he was also a thief!

But Paul doesn’t name Onesimus’ sins. He simply says, if there is anything he owes you, I got it covered. Whatever it was, Paul says, count it as my debt.

This is amazing! Sound familiar?
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God
made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross, (Col 2:13-14). 
He made him who knew no sin to be sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God, (2 Cor 5:21). 
This is the Great Exchange. This is substitution. (see a previous post on The Reason and Necessity of Substitution and Satisfaction) And in this story, Paul is putting up himself as a Christ figure. This is Paul in full Christ-likeness. He is taking all debts that Onesimus has against Philemon and he says “they are now my debts” (in the verse, “charge that to my account”). He also pleads with Philemon to consider him in place of Onesimus at the point of encounter (v.17).

Was it Christ’s debt that Christ paid for sinners? No. It was ours. Was it Paul’s debt to be paid? No. It was Onesimus’. Paul took on Onesimus’ debt, in like spirit of Jesus taking on the debt of sinners. Paul is playing the substitute. (To play the analogy out fully, Paul places Philemon in the place of God and says, “use me as your sacrifice, not him”.)

In all this, Paul is pointing to Christ. Paul is pointing to the Gospel.

"Hey Philemon, remember what Christ did for you? Now consider Onesimus."


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Philemon: God’s Sovereignty Through Sin for the Salvation of Onesimus

The little letter from Paul to Philemon, only 25 verses in today’s texts, holds treasures of meaning. We find one of those treasures in verses 15-16a.
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…

Onesimus was a slave/servant of Philemon, who had a house church in the city of Colossae (v.1-2, cf. v.23-24 w/Col 4:7-17). Onesimus escaped his earthly-master, stole some goods on the way (v.18), and intended to disappear into the big city of Rome. It was not hard for runaways to disappear in Rome.

But somehow, and in some way, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, who was in prison (v.1, cf. Acts 28:16-30), and became a believer in Christ (v.10, 16). Paul, wanting to do right by Philemon, and in considering Onesimus’ new birth; seeks reconciliation between the two men who are now brothers in Christ (v.8-17; namely v.15-16). Paul wants to put things right for the sake of not only Onesimus, but for the church in Philemon’s home. Onesimus would have obviously caused a stink upon escaping!

It is in this section (v.8-17) where we find verses 15-16a. In them, Paul, by faith (“perhaps”), considers that God took Onesimus from Philemon’s home for the sole purpose of meeting Paul and receiving Christ. NT Wright speculates that this may have served the purpose of Onesimus “find[ing] Christ himself,” instead of “picking up a second-hand faith, or the outward trappings of Christianity, in his master’s house”.

This brings us to the point of this brief commentary. Paul’s faith in God’s sovereignty through sin for the salvation of Onesimus.

Here is the nerdy, but necessary part: The ESV renders the phrase in verse 15 as “he was parted from you,” which accurately gives the verb (ἐχωρίσθη) its full passive voice. That is, it was a power outside of Onesimus that purposed the action, indicating that Onesimus was acted upon (in this case, by divine action; known in Greek-language-speak as a “divine passive”). This is affirmed by the “so that,” which denotes definite purpose and result of the action.

To give the verb an active voice would be to say that Onesimus purposefully departed from Philemon “so that” Philemon would have him back forever. But that makes no sense. Is Paul saying Onesimus fled Philemon’s house, robbed him, and escaped to a big city, for the purpose being in relationship with Philemon forever? That’s silly. More like Onesimus did what he did to stay away for good!

But in keeping the passive voice the text makes complete sense. What we have in this text is that God took Onesimus away from Philemon's house in order to have him converted by Paul and then restored to Philemon. Just so happens that God used illegal escape and robbery to do it.

(Note: The NIV, NASB, HCSB all do well in using the passive voice here. The KJV fails by making the verb active [“he therefore departed”]; and the NLT does its normal job of confusing the text entirely, pushing the focus of what happened on to Philemon [“it seems you lost Onesimus” – huh?].)

Paul’s faith in the providence and sovereignty of God through sin is an echo of Joseph’s, who after being sold into slavery by his brothers exclaimed,
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today, (Gen 50:20). 
You see the similarities? Respectively, there was a sinful action (Onesimus escaping from and robbing his master; and Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers) for a definite purpose and result that was outside the intentions of the actors (“so that [Philemon] might have [Onesimus] back forever... as a brother”; and “to bring about that many people should be kept alive”). So while the human actors had various sinful motivations, the True Providential Actor had different ones entirely.

Therefore, here we see very clearly that by faith believers in YHWH can believe and trust that He overrules and even uses sinful actions to fulfill His own purposes. Make no mistake, both Joseph and Paul believed this to be true. "Accident" and "luck" are two words absent from the vocabulary of those who truly believe in the sovereignty and providence of God.

And is this not a further mockery of the Evil One (cf. Col 2:15)?: That God will rule over evil and even use the momentary victories of sin to fulfill His great purposes? In Onesimus’ case, is there any doubt? In Joseph’s? In yours? In mine?

We can know that God is sovereign. There is no equal and opposite power to Him. Satan is, in the end, powerless toward his own ends, as God has determined by His own counsel and will. Satan has lost to the point where even his own victories are turned into his defeats (hello, cross). Does this not inspire awe, wonder, joy, and thankfulness to My Sovereign God?

Thanks be to God, that by faith not only can we actually believe a verse like Romans 8:28 (“that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”), but that there are times in our lives when we are privileged enough to catch a glimpse of how it is actually being accomplished! Is this not, in part, what Paul prayed for the believers to realize; that they might come to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of their Sovereign God (Eph 3:18)?

For Paul, and for me, the salvation of Onesimus is one of those times.
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother… (Philemon 1:15-16a) 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

God’s Sovereignty in Particular Election in the Story of Redemption: Genesis Edition

God’s Sovereignty in Particular Election in the Story of Redemption: Genesis Edition

Something has been made very clear to me during my reading and study of Biblical Theology:

A denial of particular election is a denial of God’s grace in the story of redemption.

After God created all things “good” and man “very good” – man subverted the goodness by wanting to be like God in the possession and determining of truth. “Did God really say…?” became the door into the house of idolatry. The Word of God was no longer the standard of self-evident truth, but had been reduced to the status of the word of the creature. From that point forward, truth would be tested by human standards instead of God’s. Judgment came upon man and earth, but the story does not end there.

God has a plan; a plan of redemption and restoration (consummation) for both man and earth. This plan of ultimate salvation, for a Christian theist, is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But before we get to the Messiah, history takes its course. God begins His work, showing His commitment to His creation. He does not scrap it, though He was perfectly justified to do so. Instead, as Creator, He commits Himself to displaying His glory through sovereign actions in redemption and restoration.

Eve gives birth to Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-2). God chooses Abel’s offering over that of Cain’s (Gen 4:3-5); but we are never told why. Speculation from other passages like Hebrews 11:4, 1 John 3:12, and Jude v.11 can lend a hand as for a “reason,” but the fact is the Scripture never tells us why God liked Abel’s offering over that of Cain’s. This is the first sign we see of God’s sovereign choice.

Cain becomes angry to the point of murder and kills his brother (Gen 4:8). God judges Cain by cursing him and his line of descendents (Gen 4:11, 17-24), and eventually destroys them in the coming flood. Their wickedness and violence would be wiped out (Gen 6:5,11). So now with Abel dead and Cain cursed, where is hope found in this story of redemption?

God “appoints” Seth (Gen 4:25) as an offspring to Adam and Eve (Seth means “he appointed”); and his line began to “call upon the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:26). [Note the connecting themes of calling on the name of the LORD with God keeping a remnant for Himself for redemption and salvation in Joel 2:32.]

Seth is now the legitimate blessed line of Adam. Note the contrasting genealogies of Cain and Seth. Cain’s is not linked to Adam and ends with a cry of violence (Gen 4:23-24). Seth’s, on the other hand, begins with Adam, and flows down to a man named Noah. God establishes a particular line to bless. Note that Adam had “fathered other sons and daughters” (Gen 5:4); as did Seth (Gen 5:7) and each of the proceeding names down the line (Gen 5:10,13,16,19,22,26,30). But even with all these sons and daughters, there was a particular line of blessing from Adam, to Seth, down to Noah. These are explicit signs of particular election based upon the blessing and grace of God and not because of anything found in man.

We see here two particular lines of people. One line is cursed through Cain and another is blessed through Seth. Genealogies matter (note Luke 3:38).

So we have come to Noah, who “found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (Gen 6:8). Another way to say this is: “God liked him.” Only after this declaration of God, this stamp of blessing, do we read that Noah “was a righteous man” who “walked with God” (Gen 6:9). Certainly this identity of Noah is based solely on God’s own choosing of the blessed line; the line of grace. Remember, he came particularly down the line from Seth, the “appointed one.” It was nothing in Noah that earned God’s grace and blessing. This was God’s plan of redemption through a particular people in action.

So the flood comes and wipes out mankind and other living creatures (Gen 7). Note that this is the end of the line of Cain. They have been destroyed. Their violence is gone. Now only the line of Seth remains, through Noah. God’s revelation of redemption continues. But even after the flood, the hearts of men (this includes Noah’s) have not changed (Gen 8:21). They are still evil. God yet still restates the Adamic order (Gen 9:1-3), and establishes a covenant with both man and creation (Gen 9:8-17). It is forever clear that God will save and restore a people and He will save and restore the earth He created. He is committed.

A new race of people begins (Gen 9:18-19), but the evils of men’s hearts are revealed yet again. Like a coed in college, Noah gets drunk, takes off his clothes, and passes out (Gen 9:21). His son Ham sees his dad and tells his brothers about him (perhaps jokingly and for shame, Gen 9:22). And what follows is yet another separation of curse and blessing. Ham and his line is cursed, but Shem is blessed (Gen 9:24-27).

Again, we see here two particular lines of people. One line is cursed through Ham and another is blessed through Shem. Genealogies matter (now note Luke 3:36).

And so we see contrasting lines of people. Ham’s cursed line (Gen 10:6-20), which includes those who settled in Babel (Gen 10:10); is contrasted with the blessed line of Shem (Gen 11:10-26), which leads us to none other than Terah, the father of Abram (Gen 11:26).

This is God’s particular election, based solely upon His grace and the story of redemption He is authoring.

Sidenote: The name Shem means, “name.” God is writing this story with a “name.” But what do we see with the line of Ham? Some end up in Babel and they begin to build a great city. In this great city they want to build a tower “with its top in the heavens.” And why do they want to do all of this? To “make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the earth,” (Gen 11:4). Interestingly, the Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB) translates this text: “let us make a shem, otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of kol HaAretz.”

So here we have the two lines of people. The people of the curse want to make a name (“shem”) for themselves and not be dispersed, while the people of God’s blessing have a name through Shem, the blessed son of Noah.

God’s curse and judgment upon the line of Ham prevails, and not only do they fail to make a name for themselves, “the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth,” (Gen 11:8).

And so through Adam-Seth-Noah-Shem we come to Abram, son of Terah. Again, this is a particular election of a particular people for a particular redemption. All of those from Shem to Terah had other sons (see Gen 11:10-26); but it was Shem, Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, to Abram who received the blessing. Again: look familiar (Luke 3:34-36)?

This is God’s doing. This is God’s choosing. This is God’s story of redemption.

And so God calls Abram, and not coincidentally from the previous point, God declares “…I will bless you and make your name great…” (Gen 12:2). [Note: The OJB translates this: “…I will bless thee, and make thy shem great…”].

Before this calling, Abram was a pagan, and it is highly probable that he was a worshiper of the moon-god ‘sin’ in the land of Ur (Joshua 24:2). So there was nothing in Abram that made God choose him. So the only choice was God’s free choice to carry on His plan of redemption through this one man, Abram. Out of all others. Particular election. He could have chosen Lot, but He didn’t. And Lot, through incest, became the father of the Moabites and Ammonites.

There are many factors that show evermore that this redemption is the work of God. The story of Abraham is set against a background of impossibilities: his age (75 at the time of the call), Sarah’s age (10 years younger than Abraham), the Promised Land filled with Canaanites (descendents of Ham, by the way), and Abraham trying to pimp out his wife out not once, but twice (Gen 12:11-20; 20:1-18).

Yet still, God makes His covenant with Abraham unilaterally (Gen 15:17; 17:3-8): Abraham will have many descendants, his people will possess the Promised Land, God will be their God, and through him all nations will be blessed (also Gen 12:1-3). For Paul, this is the Gospel (Gal 3:8). It is clear that against the backdrop of impossibilities in the above paragraph, this will be a supernatural elective work of God, not man.

Abraham and Sarah don’t believe in full. They try to help God out and Abraham sleeps with Hagar; begetting Ishmael (Gen 16:1-16). There you go God, your promise is fulfilled!

Nope. Remember. This is God’s work, not man’s. Abraham deserves none of this, nor can he change or force God’s plan. His sins against the plan of God are multiple; but God’s grace and plan of redemption continues. God has chosen Abraham. He is blessed.

Twenty-five years after the call, Isaac, the promised son, is born. Abraham is 100 and Sarah is 90 (Gen 17:17; 21:2-3). All obstacles have been overcome. Isaac is a gift of grace.

A key point here is Abraham’s faulty faith; and it reminds us that it is not our faith that saves us, but the object of that faith that saves us. God accounts Abraham as righteous (justified) only on that basis of his faith in Him (Gen 15:6). Again, this is the Gospel (Gal 3:9); and those with faith are blessed by God; not cursed. This is God’s doing.

Abraham dies, and God continues his electing grace by blessing Isaac, (Gen 25:11). Of all the sons of Abraham, whether by Sarah, Hagar, or Keturah (Gen 25:1-2), it was Isaac who God had chosen. Isaac marries, and Rebekah is pregnant with twins.

What is God to do now? There are two sons in the womb. Certainly the older will be the chosen one; or perhaps God will wait and see which one of Jacob and Esau live a good enough life to bless and carry on His plan of redemption.

Neither of those two things happen.

In one of the most clear and blatant examples of God’s elective grace, the LORD tells Rebekah, “the older shall serve the younger.” Paul expounds upon this act of electing grace in Romans 9:10-13.
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 
“In order that God’s purpose in election might continue…”

What is that purpose? It is to show God’s sovereignty in the story of redemption.

“This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring…so then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy,” (Rom 9:8,16).

This is why I opened this article with this comment: A denial of particular election is a denial of God’s grace in the story of redemption. It’s all right there in front of us. The entire story of redemption is predicated on God’s sovereign election. It is undeniable.

It is clear that Jacob had no merit of his own, for he was a deceiver and cunning in his behavior to receive the blessing from Isaac (Gen 27). But this is what God wanted. This is God’s story. Jacob was his man for blessing. By grace.

The story of Jacob again threatens the promises of God. But God remains with Jacob through it all. He has promised Jacob the gifts of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 28:3,13-15), and no matter of Labanic trickery will stop the fulfillment (Gen 29-31). And Jacob knew that only God’s promise would save him from his brother Esau (Gen 32:9-12).

Jacob struggles with God (Gen 32:22-23) and is later renamed Israel (Gen 35:9-15); a new name (recall Shem and Abraham). Given by God. Jacob goes from cunning deceiver to covenant patriarch (Gen 35:11-12), all by the grace of God. This is God’s story of redemption. The living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt 22:32).

Abraham is chosen over Lot. Isaac of Sarah is blessed over Ishmael of Hagar. Jacob is blessed over Esau. The non-elect are given some advantages (note how Lot's and Esau's descenents are protected in Deut 2:4-5,9,19), but they still end up in conflict with the elected group, and not all receive blessing. As Paul tells us, even within Israel not all Israel is Israel. Not all are elect (Rom 9:6). There is a national election, and there is an election unto blessing and salvation.

This is God’s story of redemption.

Election continues with Joseph (Gen 37-50), the son of Rachel sold into slavery by his brothers. What a horrific thing. But it is exactly what God wanted. It was God’s design (Gen 45:5-8). God’s remnant would be kept. Man’s evil was God’s good (Gen 50:20).

Why didn’t God just send rain and crops for the people during the famine? We learn why in Exodus. God still had a story to write.

But before we get there, Jacob blesses his sons, two of which are adopted from Joseph (Gen 48:5). Jacob’s sons are only alive because of Joseph in Egypt; and the son of note for Jacob now is a son of election and blessing. His name is Judah.

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples,” (Gen 49:10).

This blessed line of Judah gives rise to a kingdom ruled by someone in the same blessed line. His name is David, and his line rules Judah. This while some 13 ruling families rule Israel, which itself ceases to exist in 722BC. But the scepter shall not depart from Judah(!); and it is the blessed line of Judah and David that ends at Jesus of Nazareth. Genealogies matter (Luke 3:23-33).

This is God’s Sovereignty in Particular Election in the Story of Redemption.

And it continues today:
“So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace,” (Rom 11:5-6).

Let us rid ourselves of all man-centered idolatrous presuppositions and traditions, including those that say particular election is not how God works. Instead, let us adopt what the Scriptures actually teach.

Let us never rob God of His glory in His acts of sovereign grace in the story of redemption. This is God’s story to author, not ours.


Monday, February 11, 2013

"It Is Well" - Sung By My Wife, Daisha Sheets

Almost eight years ago, my wife (voice) and the late Jan Jones (piano) recorded "It Is Well" and gave me the cut for my birthday. It is one of my top three songs; and no matter how many times I sing it I find it difficult to make it through. Even just listening to her perform it moves me to praise. I hope it is edifying to you. I promise you will not regret listening.

That's my wife.

Grace be with you -

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Deuteronomy 7, Part 2 of 2: Holy War, Election, Christ

Continuing from #3 in Part 1:

4) Now, this issue about "the redemption of His people" that I just referenced must be addressed. It brings up another contentious topic; but again, I do not believe it needs to be so. Because though the Scriptures give us "reasons" that God ordered what He did to the inhabitants of the Promised Land, it does not negate the fact that in the beginning, God did the choosing. We see this in 7:6: "The LORD your God has chosen you ... out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth."

He chose to be merciful to Abram while he and his reletives were worshiping the moon gods in Ur (see Joshua 24:2). He chose to be merciful to Isaac over Ishmael, though the former was full of deceit and conspiracy. And as Romans 9:11 tells us, "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—" God chose Jacob over Esau. They were elected ones that recieved mercy. These are the fathers to whom God is faithful.

But on the other hand, God chose to do justice vs. the Amorites, even when the text is clear that the Hebrews were an obstinate people (see all of Deut 9). But this is God's prerogative. Nobody receives injustice from God. All people either receive justice (ala the Amorites) or mercy (the Hebrews). That's it. Nobody is "innocent." God is free to choose (see Rom 9:14-24). And in this choosing, we are not called to pride, but to thanksgiving and responsibility (keep reading).

5) Keep in mind now where the Hebrews are at this time in Deuteronomy. They are on the east side of the Jordan. They are about to be given the Promised Land. God is showing Himself for who He is: The One True, Holy, Merciful, Promise-Keeping God. Holy, Holy, Holy. (Holiness, by the way, is the only attribute of God that is exclaimed three times out of the mouths of angels; see Isaiah 6:1-3.) So for the Hebrews, this is the purpose of election. To be set apart. To be holy. To not be like all the other nations on the earth.

And the same is for us in Christ! See 1 Peter 2:1-12 and pay specific attention to v.9-10.

This helps us determine what the purpose of election is. Election is not to give us pride. It is an act of God alone (however inscrutable it may be), and it is to give us a certain responsibility. Ephesians 2:1-10 plays this out perfectly. We are elected/saved because of God's love and mercy alone and not because of what we have done or who we are (note the perfect parallels with Deut 7:7-8 and 9:4-6).

Yet it doesn't end there. As elected ones in His ecclesia (the gathering of peoples known as the Bride of Christ), we are told that we are "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

So just like the Hebrews, we were elected for something; for a reason and a purpose. As Jesus said, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go andbear fruit and that your fruit should abide..." (John 15:16).

It is for good works. It is for obedience. It is for holiness (Eph 1:4). It is for the glory of God. There is purpose in election.
Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (10:14-15)
6) As a final note, I would like us to remember and glory in what we have in Christ. In Deuteronomy 7:12-16 we have the obedience of the people and God's blessing contingent upon that obedience. But consider what we have in Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Thus, it is Christ's perfect obedience that is seen on our behalf. The sins of those with faith, put upon Christ. Christ's righteousness, imputed to those who have faith in Him. It is The Great Exchange. And so every contingency has been met for us. All our failures; via true faith in Christ, will not rid us of God's blessing. Just consider that for a moment ...

... Christ has done it all on our behalf. And so, let us now walk worthy of such a calling and so prove to not be liars who claim Him with our lips alone, but His disciples who live according to His Word.

Have your Sabbath rest in this. Enjoy the Promised Land.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

Grace be with you -