Friday, December 20, 2019

Update

Just a quick note: I found a few days ago that a whole lot of comments were awaiting moderation, some going back almost a year. I'm very sorry: I didn't realize I had fallen down on the job.

I published all the comments that weren't obviously spam. Thanks, everyone, for your patience!

Best wine

John 2:1–11 tells the story of the first of the signs in John's gospel: turning water into wine. I've been thinking a lot about this story over the last several months, because it seems to me like it shines light very clearly on an error I fall into. This is a story we hear in connection with marriage quite frequently: the Lord attending a wedding, which we cite as evidence that marriage is endorsed by Christ Himself. I think that's a completely valid conclusion to draw from the story.

We remember the story: the Lord attends a wedding, and they don't have enough wine. A friend of mine said in a Bible reading, "'no wine' is a serious problem – not as serious as 'no water' – but serious nonetheless." I think that's a good summary. I'm afraid (having grown up among Canadian evangelicals) "no wine" doesn't strike me as very serious... but the Lord took it seriously, and so does John.

So the Lord has them pour water into six earthen vessels, and when they draw out the water, they find it's turned to wine. And then they take this new wine to the master of the feast, who comments that they planned the feast wrong: they ought to have served the good wine at the start of the feast, then they should have served the lesser wine after the guests have drunk enough (John 2:10). (Presumably the guests' drinking was supposed to have dulled their palates.) But at this wedding, they served the best wine last.

My buddy went on in that same Bible reading to say that we're going to taste that vintage, but we need to wait until the Kingdom. I'm not much of a wine drinker, but I'm looking forward to tasting that one.

I've been mulling over the fact that the Lord made the best wine. The feast master's appraisal doesn't actually add anything to the miracle: Christ shows who He is by turning water into wine. But the Scripture includes it anyway, which indicates there's a lesson to be learned in it. There is a point beyond the "mere" miracle of turning water into wine: it shows that the Son of God paid attention to something as frivolous as the quality of the wine at a wedding. He didn't take an austere position and tell them that too much wine is bad for them, He didn't tell them they should be grateful for any wine He gave them: He made the best wine.

I confess that my views on Christianity – on sanctification and salvation and manifesting the life of Jesus in our mortal bodies – can lead to a completely passive Christian life. It's not hard from there to fall into a sort of a Gnosticism, where the world around us is somehow irrelevant. And I'm sorry to say that I've known many believers who have fallen into this exact error: they end up almost enslaved to their theology, afraid to act lest they do so "in the flesh" and contrary to the work of the Holy Spirit. It's all too easy to take what Scripture says about "death working in us" to an idea where we strive to be nothing so that Christ can be everything. But as one friend said, "striving to be nothing isn't Christianity, it's Buddhism."

Francis Schaeffer warns in Escape from Reason that if we divorce "Grace" from "Nature", we end up with an autonomous "Nature" that will eventually destroy "Grace" (pp. 28–29). Of course his concern was mainly about humanist intellectuals starting with Thomas Aquinas, but I have fallen into the exact error he cautions against, and I'm not alone.

The problem is as simple as tunnel vision. The truth of our unity with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection is glossed over to the point of complete neglect in many Christian circles. So we end up with a glut of "ministry" that urges counterfeit spirituality, where men and women attempt to be made perfect in the power and energy of the flesh. And when someone sees the truth of their unity with Christ, and the freedom that comes from that, the natural tendency is to share that with everyone. And the more it's resisted, the more it becomes the focus.

So let's just say that our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ is the key to a godly life. There can't be fruit for God unless we have been made dead to the Law by the body of Christ (Romans 7:4).

But let's not lose sight of the whole counsel of God.

Consider 1 Corinthians 6:19–20; we're called to glorify God in our bodies. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:10–11; we're called to manifest the life of Jesus in our mortal flesh. Consider Romans 12:1–2; we're called to present our bodies as living sacrifices. We could go on, but the point is that we're not called to a hypothetical life. We're called to live the life of Jesus in physical bodies, in the physical world.

Yes, the creation is fallen. Yes, our bodies are fallen. Yes, we look for a new heaven and a new earth. But I can't find in Scripture where I'm allowed to treat this creation like it doesn't matter.

A while back, Rodger shared a quote where someone said that Scripture talks about the "new creation", but it never once mentions the "old creation". There's an "old man" and an "old covenant", but there isn't an "old creation" in Scripture, because God isn't finished with the first creation yet. God doesn't call something "old" until He's done with it.

But I have frequently fallen into the trap of calling this present world the "old creation", out of a desire to draw attention to the [Scriptural] idea of New Creation. And I'm not alone.

So let's go back to the wine at Cana... when the Lord Jesus made wine, He made the very best wine. That comment doesn't just give us a hint into the wedding customs of that day: it shows us that the Lord Jesus treated the first creation with dignity as being the work of God. It's fallen, but it's not nothing. It matters. And good wine matters: Christ didn't act like it's unimportant whether the wine is good. He made the very best wine.

And I'm having to remind myself that when I allow myself to divorce this life from heavenly truth, I end up with an autonomous view of this life that eventually overtakes and pollutes my view of the heavenly. It's not just a philosophical trick Schaeffer was playing: it was a very serious warning about a truly dire problem.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The wages of sin

Housekeeping Note: I just found a whole bunch of comments that were awaiting moderation, some from a very long time ago. If you've tried to comment and your comment just disappeared, that was probably my fault. I'm sorry. I've updated the comment settings to make commenting easier, while hopefully cutting down on spam.

I was listening to a preacher a few weeks ago, who said, "the wages for sin is death."

Of course that's not what the Scripture actually says... the actual quote is, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23, emphasis added). The idea here isn't that death is the reward for sinning – the idea is that sin is a master who pays his servants wages. The wage he pays is death.

At the simplest level, the two ideas seem very close, but when we give it some thought, we realize that there is actually quite a bit of difference between them.

We've already discussed the difference between sin and sins. Sin is the principle that lives in my [fallen] body (Romans 8:10), while sins are specific acts (Romans 4:7; 1 John 1:9). Scripture is careful to keep these two ideas distinct, although they do necessarily touch at times; for example, a single sinful act is "a sin". But there is a difference between the specific act and the principle that motivated it.

The difference is striking in Romans, where the first four-and-one-half chapters discuss sins, while the next three-and-a-half chapters discuss sin. The transition comes in Romans 5:9–12. Romans 5 starts out by describing the blessings of those who have been "justified by faith" (Romans 5:1), but continues on to discuss the deeper problem: that when Adam sinned, we all became sinners (Romans 5:19). We generally think the we are sinners because we sin, but really Scripture takes the opposite point of view: we sin because we [already] are sinners.

Let's take a moment to try and get our arms around that. There are those who believe that we're all guilty of Adam's sin, but I just can't find that in Scripture. Scripture doesn't claim we'll be judged for Adam's sin, but for our own (Romans 2:3–11). But Scripture does teach that it's on account of Adam's sin that we are sinners (Romans 5:19). So we're not guilty of Adam's sin, but we're fallen because of it.

But back to Romans 6:23... In Romans 6–8, we have the problem of sinfulness – not guilt exactly. The idea here isn't that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); the idea here is that all are sinners, and are thus slaves to sin. So in Romans 6–8, sin is a master we obey (Romans 6:6, 12, 16–17, 20). And so Romans 6:23 gives us a dire warning: if we obey sin, it'll pay us wages. Those wages are death.

Sin is present with us as long as we are in fallen bodies (Romans 7:17, 23; Romans 8:3, 10, 23). There will come a day when the Son of God will come from Heaven to change our bodies to be like His (Philippians 3:20–21), and we won't have sin anymore. But now we find it's a constant enemy, and it's an enemy we can't get away from: we carry it with us everywhere we go.

I can't find anything in Scripture that says God condemns us for what we are. He judges according to works. But at the same time, our works are really driven by what we are. This distinction is important in Romans, and it's important in the Christian life. God forgives the sins of those who believe (Romans 4:1–8). So there is no condemnation for them: the Judge has already declared "not guilty". But while that gives us hope in the next life (if I can say it that way), it doesn't do a lot to affect the quality of their life now. A forgiven sinner is still a sinner.

The good news for us in this life is that God has freed us through death from our master sin (Romans 6:1–11). As far as God is concerned, we have died with Christ. So we are now freed from sin (from sin's power, not its presence). Our responsibility is to accept what God says is true, even if it doesn't look true to us. And as we accept what God says by faith, we come into the good of it.

But that doesn't take us out of the bodies that are "dead because of sin" (Romans 8:10). Even though we are freed from the power of sin, we find its presence still with us. So we still look for the Son of God to come from Heaven and redeem our fallen bodies (Philippians 3:20–21).

And that brings us back to the misquoted verse about wages. Romans 6:23 isn't telling us about God's judgment for sinning. It's telling us about sin's role as a master. And it follows the warning that we, having been freed from sin by death, can still put ourselves under bondage to sin simply by obeying it (Romans 6:15–16). Notice the parallel to Romans 8:11–13. Both warn us that it's very easy for us to go from practical freedom from sin into practical bondage to sin in an astonishingly short time.

As much as I hate to say it, this is an area where J. N. Darby's ministry is somewhat weak. I respect Darby very highly, but I think this is an area where he was so careful to avoid the ditch on one side of the road, he almost ran into the ditch on the other. He does a good job describing this problem in "Deliverance from the Law of Sin" (Collected Writings, Volume 32, pp. 323–331), but he tends to gloss over this problem in his other writings. So let me pause and emphasize that it's entirely possible for someone to experience the liberty of Romans 6 or Romans 8, and still fall into a sort of a practical bondage to sin. It's possible to fall, regardless of how far down the path we've gone. As long as we're in unredeemed bodies, we need to watch.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

What did Abraham believe?

I was listening to a sermon yesterday (from several years ago), where the preacher was talking about justification. He talked about Romans 4 and Abraham, and made the claim that Abraham believed, looking forward to the death of Christ.

I don't think that's true. It is true that Abraham looked forward to Christ, rejoicing to see His day (John 8:56); but neither Romans 4, nor Genesis 15 refer to that. I think there's a real problem if you go down that path, and it's worth spending some time thinking about.

Genesis 15:6 is the one place in Scripture we actually see someone justified, so it's natural that Romans 4 would look back to it. The whole subject of Romans 4 is justification, argued from the Old Testament – of course it references Abraham's justification by faith.

But the fact is that Romans 4:1–5 makes the argument that Abraham was justified when he believed God. The point appears to be whom Abraham believed, not what he believed:

for what does the scripture say? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3)

Romans 4:16–22 does go on to give a description of what Abraham believed:

[Abraham] against hope believed in hope to his becoming father of many nations, according to that which was spoken (Romans 4:18)
So Romans 4 credits Abraham with believing God about the promise that he would be the father of many nations. And the passage goes on to enumerate the barriers to his faith: he (Abraham) was too old to have children, and his wife had never been able to conceive (Romans 4:19). But despite what he knew to be true, he believed God.

Again, let's acknowledge that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ's day (John 8:56). There's no doubt that Abraham looked forward to Christ. But the simple truth is that Romans 4 doesn't mention this. It doesn't even hint at it. For that matter, neither does Genesis 15. The entire conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 15 (Genesis 15:4–12) is about Abraham's childlessness and his uncertainty about possessing the land God gave him. The fact is, Romans 4 quotes Genesis 15 (not Genesis 12 nor Genesis 17 nor Genesis 22) when it discusses Abraham's justification by faith. The crux of the argument is whom – not what – Abraham believed.

James quotes Genesis 15:6 too (James 2:21–23). James says when Abraham offered Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22:9–12), that "the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God" (James 2:23). That verse was very popular several years ago, when "Lordship Salvation" was popular. I objected then, that Romans 4:1–5 quotes Genesis 15, not Genesis 22. Indeed, it seems to me that James 2 makes it quite clear that Genesis 15 must precede Genesis 22, because James says that Genesis 22 "fulfills" Genesis 15.

Similarly, the promises to Abraham's seed are in Genesis 22:15–18. Now that might not seem significant, but it is Genesis 22:18 that Acts 3:25 and Galatians 3:16 quote. I don't doubt that Abraham had a revelation of Jesus Christ, but the New Testament quotes Genesis 22 to prove it. So my contention is, making Romans 4:1–5 about a faith in Jesus Christ's future [to Abraham] death for his sins is exactly the same error as "Lordship Salvation" – it's putting Genesis 15 and Genesis 22 together, when Scripture plainly doesn't. Indeed, one author claims that Genesis 22 comes as late as 40 years after Genesis 15.

So no, I don't believe that Abraham believed about Christ per se in the account in Romans 4:1–5. It isn't supported by the immediate context (Romans 4:13–22), nor by the context in Genesis 15:1–9. It doesn't align with James 2:21–23, nor with Galatians 3:16. On the contrary, Romans 4:13–22 explicitly tells us that Abraham believed God that he would have a physical heir. The point is not what Abraham believed, but whom.

Before we go on, let's reiterate that God justifies men and women who believe Him (Romans 4:5). He justifies them on the basis of the work of Christ (Romans 3:21–26). I am definitely not claiming that there is righteousness for us except in Christ Jesus, and only because He died for us.

Scripture tells us about the "everlasting gospel" in Revelation 14:6–7: "Fear God and give him glory". And this is so very important. If we say God only justifies those who understand and believe that Christ died for them, then we really deny the gospel. God isn't waiting for people to understand justification before He justifies. On the contrary, God merely wants men and women to believe Him. I am completely convinced that all who fear God and give Him glory are justified in His sight, regardless of how well they know and understand that Christ has died for them. Certainly it's only because of the work of Christ that God justifies, but an understanding of that work is not a barrier to God's justifying the one who believes Him.

And this comes back to my continued ranting about people equating "saved" with "justified" or "born again." They're not the same thing, and scripture doesn't ever treat them like synonyms. But when we treat them like they're the same, then we're forced to make some outlandish assumptions about Scripture. So in Acts 19:1–7, we find the disciples of John in Ephesus. Paul asks them, "Did ye receive [the] Holy Spirit when ye had believed?" (Acts 19:2). They respond that they don't know what he's talking about. But notice, Paul explicitly says they had believed. Were they justified? Of course they were! God justifies the one who believes (Romans 4:5). But they hadn't received the Holy Spirit: they weren't Christ's (Romans 8:9). They knew John's gospel, they had believed it, but they hadn't believed on Christ. The Holy Spirit seals faith in Christ (John 7:39). God justifies those who believe Him, but the Holy Spirit seals faith in Christ, not faith in God.

Remember, the children of Israel were redeemed when they headed out after the Passover, but they weren't saved until they saw the bodies of the Egyptians on the shore (Exodus 14:30).

Believing God justifies, but it's faith in Christ that brings us into salvation. Salvation isn't righteousness in God's sight: salvation is the possession of men and women in Christ. Justification is Romans 4, salvation is Romans 8.

If we go back to John's disciples in Ephesus, we realize that they certainly weren't saved, but they were justified. And Paul doesn't treat them like pagans. But if we confuse salvation with justification, then we have to put everyone we meet into one of two categories: either they're saved or they're lost. But scripture just doesn't support that idea. There may be many people we meet who have believed God (and are thus justified), but who are ignorant or confused then it comes to the work of Christ. We shouldn't treat them like pagans, we should treat them like Paul treated John's disciples.

Now, I don't believe that anyone God has justified can reject Christ. Or, to put it another way, someone who denies Christ certainly hasn't believed God. I'm not suggesting that God justifies the one who outright rejects Christ. But I am saying that there are many people who have been justified, but aren't yet saved. There are many who believe God, but haven't [yet] believed Christ.

On the other hand, when we fall into the trap of lumping salvation and justification together, we end up with churches full of people who are content to be justified from their sins, but who don't ever make it to Romans 8. If we feel we have to put people into one of two buckets ("Saved" or "Lost"), then we end up calling someone "saved" who is merely justified.

And that, I think, is precisely where evangelicals have gone so badly off track.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Truly Lost

I was listening to a sermon this last weekend about Christian living. It was an odd experience to me: virtually everything the man said was true, but he left out two points that are oh-so-important.

He spoke about the temptation in the Garden, and illustrated James 1:14–17 from Genesis 3. He pointed out that we all have desires, and it's not wrong to have desires, but the first step in the temptation in the Garden was questioning God's motives: the serpent came to Eve with the suggestion that God was holding some good thing back from her. And he talked about how doubting God's motives led to her attempting to find satisfaction from disobeying God. And that led to sin and guilt and shame and death.

I'm painting in broad strokes here: his description of Genesis 3:6ff was actually quite good. But he seemed to miss a very important point when he drew an application to us: unlike Eve (and Adam), we are fallen. Adam and Eve started out innocent. We are not innocent: each of us has indwelling sin. Romans 5:19 tells us that one man's disobedience made everyone a sinner. That's not to say that we are all guilty of Adam's sin, but it is to say that I am a sinner because of Adam's sin.

So regardless of how free Adam's will (or Eve's will) was in the Garden, we really don't have free will now. I don't mean we don't make choices, I mean our will isn't really free. We are inclined to sin: not merely predisposed to sin, but Adam's sin has made us all slaves to sin.

The only freedom from sin is in death (Romans 6:7). Christ has died for my sins according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 5:10); that deals with my guilt. I have died with Christ (Romans 6:1–7); that deals with my sinfulness (Romans 6:11). God has made me free from the rule of sin by identifying me with Christ in death (Romans 6:4).

It seems to me that legalism is characterized by not really believing that we are lost. If we are guilty, but not lost, we might see law (the Law of Moses, or some other law) as a path to practical righteousness, because we think we could actually keep it. But Romans 8:3 speaks directly to this idea: law (and here isn't specifically the Law of God) isn't effective, because it is weakened by flesh. I don't take that to mean that flesh in some way changes the Law, but that flesh simply can't keep it. That's borne out a few verses later: the fleshly mind is enmity with God because it isn't subect to the Law of God and cannot be (Romans 8:7). It's not simply that the carnal mind isn't subject to the Law – it's that the carnal mind cannot be subject to the Law of God.

And so we hear really good advice from well-meaning men and women who urge us to obey God. But the problem isn't that the advice isn't good, the problem is that we find ourselves entirely powerless to take it. The harder we try to obey God, the more we realize we simply can't do it.

Romans 5:9 through 8:39 lays out for us the Christian life. It starts with justification from guilt: because Christ has died for my sins, God is able to justly justify me (Romans 3:26). The one who doesn't work, but believes God is justified from all his or her sins (Romans 4:5). Regardless of what terrible things he or she has done, God freely forgives the person who believes Him (Acts 13:38–39).

Having been forgiven all our sins, we now face the question of what our life should look like. And we set out to obey God, but find ourselves incapable of doing so. The solution to this problem starts in Romans 6:1–11. There we find that Christ has died not only as our Sacrifice, but also as our Representative. God sees us as dead with Him, and it's our believing God that makes us free.

Notice it's exactly the same principle in Romans 4:5 as Romans 6:6–11. In both cases, the question is, "Do you believe God?" Do we believe God when He says that Christ has died for our sins? Do we believe God when He says that we have died with Christ? Believing God is the key to forgiveness of sins as well as freedom from the power of sin.

Romans 6 deals with two questions:

  1. shall we continue in sin? (Romans 6:1–14)
  2. shall we sin? (Romans 6:15–23)
Notice these aren't the same question: the first question addresses lifestyle, the second addresses what we might call dabbling. It's really asking whether we should "just this once" enjoy sin.

The answer to the first question is, "we have died to sin, how should we live in it?" And notice here it's not sins, but sin. It's really talking about the principle of sin that lives in our mortal bodies (cf. Romans 8:10–11).

The answer to the second question is, "you become the slave of the one you obey." Don't let's fool ourselves: if we start dabbling in sin, we've taken the first step to being a slave to sin.

There is a lot of debate about Romans 7. It doesn't sound like it should come between Romans 6 and Romans 8: it's almost like a step backwards to go from Romans 6 to Romans 7. The answer is that chapter 7 parallels chapter 6. In Romans 6, we're freed by death from sin; in Romans 7 we're freed by death from law.

Almost everything I've read on Romans 7 has been unsatisfactory. It seems to me whatever position you take on it, you're going to have some problems. But if we step away from the theological aspects of the chapter and look at it practically, it becomes a lot simpler.

Romans 7 brings us back to the question of legalism. What is the effect of the Law in our lives? We find, perhaps to our surprise, that the effect of law is to bring death to us (Romans 7:8–14). We tend to think that adding law (our own rules, or even God's) to our lives will have a purifying effect, but the testimony of scripture is that it brings death.

The two key verses are Romans 7:5–6. There is a contrast between "when we were in the flesh" in v. 5 and "but now we are delivered" in v. 6. So Romans 7:5 is summarizing Romans 7:7–24, while Romans 7:6 describes Romans 7:25–8:17.

Consider Philippians 3:9–10, where we learn that being "in Christ" means having no righteousness of my own. This is exactly opposite to what Romans 7:7–24 describes: it's someone trying to accomplish righteous before God, and he finds all he manages to do is sin worse.

The key in Romans 7 is giving up on ourselves. And to our surprise, when we give up on ourselves, we find the Holy Spirit ready to guide our steps (Romans 8:1–4). And so we come to this amazing section about "walking in the spirit."

So going back to this sermon I heard... there were two fundamental truths of the New Testament that were missing. First, our life has ended with Christ. We must accept this as true before we can be fruitful for God (Romans 7:4). There is no fruit for God unless we are dead with Christ.

Second, we must be empowered by the Spirit of God. My efforts to live righteously for God are pretty much summed up as, "when we were in the flesh." It's when we accept we have no righteousness of our own that we are really "in Christ" (Philippians 3:9–10).

Again, we're thinking in practical terms here. No doubt God sees us as "in Christ" regardless of how we act. But our experience won't reflect that as long as we're trying to generate righteousness for God.

But in the end, we're not rational creatures. Everything the man said about temptation was true, but I really don't think it will change anything. Our problem is moral, not rational. We need to be delivered through the cross of Christ in order to live righteously before God.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The better way

We've been reading through the Pentateuch for the last couple years on Wednesday nights: we started with Exodus a few years ago, and are now in Deuteronomy 32. So our reading of the Pentateuch is coming to a close.

Something I've heard over and over since I was a kid in Sunday School is that the Law is the best way to live in this world. They used to tell us, for example, that the strictures against eating pork were because pigs carry all sorts of diseases and parasites, and it was healthier not to eat pork.

I've heard that sort of reasoning given as we read through the Pentateuch this time as well. For example, someone commented on Deuteronomy 22:9 that crops are more productive if they aren't sown together.

But... that's not actually true. All the reading I've done on the subject says crops are much more productive when they are mixed. Mixed fields are more resistant to disease, and the soil is healthier with diverse plants. My understanding – which is far from perfect – is that we plant large fields uniformly because it makes the harvest easier to automate, not because the crops grow better.

This was brought home to me most clearly in the commandments regarding lending. The children of Israel were to forgive all debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1–2). So the maximum term of a loan under the Law is seven years. But they were specifically forbidden from considering how far away the seventh year is (Deuteronomy 15:9). So if it's the sixth year, and a poor fellow Israelite asks for a loan, you're specifically forbidden from taking into consideration that you must forgive the loan in less than one year. And if someone asks for a loan, you're not allowed to take his ability to pay it back into consideration (Deuteronomy 15:7–8). In fact, if someone poor asks for a loan, you're to return the collateral of the loan by sundown (Deuteronomy 24:12–13).

Those rules can only be described as "non-sustainable". You are expected to give loans without interest, which must be forgiven every seven years. You can take collateral for a loan, but you can't keep it overnight. You're not allowed to consider the borrower's ability to repay a loan, nor are you allowed to consider how close the mandatory loan forgiveness is when you're asked for a loan. It's madness.

I've come to the conclusion that many times, the Law specifies doing things in worse, not better ways. It's not because pork is unhealthy that eating it is forbidden. It's not because crops grow better separately they were commanded to keep them separate. It's not because it's good financial sense to lend to someone without thought for their ability to repay the loan that they were commanded to do so. It seems to me like the very opposite.

The idea that the Law prescribes "best practices" for our health and well-being entirely misses the point. These weren't strictures against practices that don't work. These are strictures against things our experience shows work very well. So why does God give rules that seem counter-productive?

Deuteronomy 11:8–15 establishes the principle of Deuteronomy: the rules are different in God's land. In Egypt, if you want your crops to grow, you need to irrigate the land (Deuteronomy 11:10). But in Canaan, if you want your crops to grow, you need to pray for rain (Deuteronomy 11:13–14). The principle of living in the land is immediate, direct dependence on God.

So laws about lending that forbid taking the most elementary precautions to protect your money aren't supposed to work better. That's not the point. They're designed to make you depend on God. The promise is, if you do things the way I tell you, then I will ensure your success (Deuteronomy 15:10). You won't succeed because you're following better rules, you'll succeed because God will directly intervene to bless.

And this, I think, is the point we all miss, all the time. We see Scripture as a sort of a guide for how to live in this creation. But that's not at all what Scripture is. It's a guide for how to live in an entirely different creation, a creation where your best ideas and hardest efforts will entirely fail. In the new creation, the only rule for success is to be close to Christ (John 15:4–5).

I wish I could get my arms around this! I wish I could really see this and live it out! I wish I could finally learn that one lesson: that my hardest efforts and my wisest decisions and my most clever plans and my most intelligent ideas are all bound to fail in the new creation. I wish I could see – consistently – that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. I wish I could finally be convinced that the only key to success in the Christian life is proximity to Christ. It seems like no matter how many times I'm brought face-to-face with that one truth, I manage to put it out of my mind, and go back to thinking I've got a better way.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

"Publicly and in every house"

There's been some discussion here about what constitutes an "assembly meeting". I've seen a lot of these discussions over the last twenty years, and I've come to dislike them intensely.

In my experience, when someone questions whether something is an "assembly meeting," the question behind the question is, "must we obey 1 Corinthians 14:26–40?" Literally every time I've heard someone question whether something is an "assembly meeting," the actual question is whether women should be speaking in the meeting. I can't recall a single instance when that wasn't the issue.

I can't find where scripture discusses "assembly meetings". I just can't find those verses. It seems to me we get into the weeds when we start building theologies on terminology that's not in scripture. If we really want to be biblical Christians, it seems to me the best place to start is by using biblical terms to describe biblical ideas.

So, if "assembly meeting" isn't a scriptural term, is it at least a scriptural idea? I suppose the actual question is whether there is the concept of a non "assembly meeting." It seems to me there are two questions we need to consider. First, is there the concept in scripture that Christians might gather, but not as the assembly? Second, is it possible that the assembly gathers, but it's not an "assembly meeting?"

In practical terms, the second question is really the one people are asking. I don't know anyone who questions whether it is "the assembly" when I have other Christians over for dinner. I'm sure there is someone, somewhere who holds that view, but it's not something I've come across.

I think the closest thing we get to a scriptural answer is in Acts 20:20. There, Paul says he taught the Ephesian elders "publicly and in every house." If there is a more relevant verse, I haven't found it.

So Paul appears to classify his teaching into two categories:

  1. public
  2. and private (in every house).
This has the advantage of being a simple and clear distinction, but there isn't really a lot of nuance to it. If someone has a Bible study in their home, then it would fall under "in every house." If the assembly has a Bible study on a weeknight, then it would fall under "publicly."

Again, I realize this isn't really nuanced, but it's all I really see in Scripture.

The small meeting here has a Wednesday night meeting. We spend about 45 minutes praying, then we spend another 45 minutes in a Bible reading. I've been told that the first 45 minutes is an "assembly meeting," while the next 45 minutes is "not an assembly meeting." That's certainly nuanced, but it also seems a bit ridiculous.

What I haven't personally seen – what I'd like to see – is an assembly taking the position that we only do what scripture clearly teaches. If we have to build a theology to explain "not assembly meeting" and "assembly meeting," then perhaps we've already gone down the wrong path. Perhaps we've already filled our schedules with things scripture doesn't actually command. Perhaps we're already doing too much.

"brethren" like to refer to Acts 2:42 as a sort of a charter for the assembly. There we read about four activities in the early church:

  1. the teaching of the apostles
  2. fellowship
  3. breaking of bread
  4. prayers.
It seems to my "brethren" read way too much into that verse. It's not a command for us, it's a description of what the early Christians did. And it certainly isn't giving us a list of meetings that we ought to be attending, although I've known plenty of folks who seem to think it is.

But let's just take those four elements as a sort of a basic description of four things an assembly should be doing. Let's be clear that adding more things isn't necessarily an improvement: the Ephesians appear to have been involved in all sorts of activities, but were still missing the point (Revelation 2:2–4). But let's get back to the four in Acts 2:42. If those comprise a list of activities the assembly should be doing, then perhaps we could generate a list of things the assembly shouldn't be doing.

In the end, I'm not actually advocating for cancelling all the meetings, nor even reducing the count to four or fewer. What I am advocating is that we test what we're doing against Scripture. If a meeting doesn't seem to work unless we declare it to be a "non-assembly meeting," then maybe we should just cancel it. And certainly, if there's no real exercise before the Lord about a meeting, we should pray about dropping it. Having a meeting just because "we've always done it" is a step down the path to Ephesus (Revelation 2:2–4).