Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Post-Brethren (Revised)

This is an edited copy of a post I made in March of 2007. I was somewhat frustrated when I wrote it, and I wanted to re-visit this and tone it down a little. That is, I don't want to sugar-coat anything, but I also don't want to throw any accusations around on the 'Net. So this is a more calm, rational explanation of my new position...


Well, it's official: I am now Post Brethren. I am coming out as someone who no longer drinks the Kool-Aid. I liked the Kool-Aid---I have a bit of a Kool-Aid habit, if the truth were known---but I've had enough.

What do I mean by Post-Brethren? Well, what I don't mean is Ex-Brethren. Believe it or not, I'm not trying to leave the teachings and beliefs of "brethren" behind. I still hold to almost all the "brethrenisms" I've held for the last ten years or more:
- I still believe the Lord Jesus is present wherever "two or three are gathered in [His] Name".
- I still believe denominational titles are essentially wrong.
- I still believe that clergy/laity distinction is a denial of the Headship of Christ.
- I still believe there is only one Body, and membership in anything other than the One Body is sectarianism.
- I still believe the Lord's Supper ought to be observed weekly and unscripted.
- I still believe that the directives about women being silent in the meetings, headcoverings, etc. are for today, and are to be taken literally.
- I'm still a Dispensationalist.
- I still read the Darby Translation as my primary Bible.

See, it's not that I have an issue with what "brethren" teach. But I have come to the conclusion that I can't actually live it out as long as I am still Brethren (note the big 'B'). The problem is, I have become convinced that we have taken some truths we have found in Scripture, and we've built a huge system on top of them. And at some point, that system collapses under its own weight.

So where "walking in separation" used to mean we eschew what evil we see out there---whether in Christendom or in the world---it has come to mean we have an exclusive club, a "members only" arrangement. Where we used to say we didn't have a "statement of faith" because we endeavoured to respect the whole word of God, we now read our "articles of faith" into Scripture.

My declaration of Post-Brethrenism doesn't necessarily imply I'm leaving or anything. I might leave, but I might stay: I don't believe it's really my choice to make. I am in prayer about that very thing; and as I have said before, that is not a decision to be made for any reason other than I am sure the Lord wants me to. But I'm not necessarily moving to sever any current ties. What it does mean is, I am endeavouring to walk according to what I see in Scripture, regardless of how many or how few want to walk with me. So while it doesn't mean I am going to leave, it does mean I'm not afraid to. I hope that distinction makes sense.

I mentioned in the original post that I read F. E. Raven. I still do. And I read the more "accepted" writers too: J. N. Darby, W. Kelly, etc. But I encountered an interesting statement by FER this last weekend: a friend pulled a book off my shelf, opened it, and handed it to me. It was Ministry by F. E. Raven, Volume 17, p. 41. FER said: "I think we ought to contend earnestly in the present day against what we may call brethrenism."

I think he said the same thing I am trying to say, but more succinctly than I. It's not what "brethren" teach that's the problem. And it's not the individuals who are in "brethren" (although there is the flesh in every one of us, of course). The problem is, we've allowed a system to build up, and like all systems, it is a man-made thing. It's imperfect. And it gets in the way.

We did it unknowingly, and we did it with good intentions. But we've become the very thing we started out to escape. We've rebuilt the things we cast down, and we've become transgressors (see Galatians 2).

Let me appeal again to FER. On the same page as the above quote, there is this exchange (the article is actually the notes of a Reading meeting):
R.S.S. We speak of 'our fellowship'.

F.E.R. If you mean christian fellowship I do not mind. If you mean a special fellowship I object very much.

R.S.S. Would you not speak of a person being received into fellowship?

F.E.R. We only admit that that man is fit to walk with christians anywhere.

This really cuts to the heart of the matter. Once we have set up a fellowship where membership is optional, then we have set up a sect. We have set up a system. It may be a very good system, it may be the best of the sects out there. But it is still a sect. It is still man's invention, regardless of how well intentioned the men were who set it up.

So when I describe myself as "Post-Brethren", I don't say that to mean I am leaving "brethren", but that I am no longer interested in Brethrenism.

Whether this will have any affect on my fellowship and assembly situation remains to be seen. There may well be consequences to saying something like this, especially in public. But I honestly believe this is the path we must take, if we are to be honest about where we are, and how we arrived here.

In my original post, I enumerated some specific incidents that have helped me arrive at this conclusion. I think it's best to remove those: there is no real value in making accusations online, other than to stir up strife.

I still believe what "brethren" claim to believe. I believe the Lord is present whenever a couple (or more) people gather to honour Him, regardless of whether it's in a church building or a Gospel Hall, or a living room. I believe the Lord's wish is to be remembered in Breaking of Bread. Frequently. I believe there is no better teacher than the Holy Spirit, and that there is no better source of wisdom and knowledge than the Word of God. I believe the Church was and should be characterized by spontaneous, unscripted meetings where all the brethren are free to stand up and speak. I believe there is only One Body, and every Christian is a member, and there is no other membership that the Word of God recognizes.

And I'm still a Dispensationalist. Yes, I read Gerstner's book, and I found it thoroughly unconvincing. And I've read plenty of "papers" by second-year students at some Reformed school or another, all thinking they were original in repeating the same tired old saws about Dispensationlism. I'm still not convinced.

The Lord Jesus really is coming back. Soon. And I've decided to finally let the Brethrenism ship set sail without me, so I can concentrate on getting to know Him before He comes to get me.

I've wasted enough time.

Odd's life, I used to joke about brethrenisms, but somewhere along the path, they became real. Perhaps that's the Lord's allowing me to see my own folly in Technicolor. Maybe I goaded Him into it. I've now met the people who really believe what I used to joke about. And I've become one of them. And now I'm seeing the foolishness of it: the foolishness of the arrogances, the foolishness of my own mockeries of them: "Fools make a mock at sin: but among the righteous there is favour." (Pr. 14:9).

In the end, the Lord calls us to so much more than what we do. I want to experience it.


And I should re-iterate my final note. There are all sorts of mature, godly believers who are "brethren". I am not by any means doubting that. But I have been forced to conclude that I personally cannot go on with the system we have built.

All of the implications of that statement aren't clear to me yet.

Dirty Laundry

I've been saying since the outset that I've wanted to avoid airing dirty laundry on this blog: that is, that I want to not spend time bad-mouthing Christians on this blog. As a result, I've been reading and re-reading my blog every once in a while, checking to make sure I don't cross the line.

This has become more important, as people are now actually reading it. I've shared the url for this blog with a few people, and I've linked to it from one online forum where I occasionally participate. Other than that, I've tried to not advertise it: consider that an experiment in graph theory on the web.

Well, I was re-reading last night, and I decided to remove the post declaring myself Post-Brethren. I still hold that view, but I want to re-work that a little and re-post it. It was written in some frustration, and it was honest, but I think I crossed the line a couple times.

So rather than quietly altering the blog, I removed that post (well, I just un-published it), and I'll try and write something a little more controlled to express that, then post it here again.

A final word: I started this blog as a very personal thing: allowing me to express my thoughts and feelings as I'm working through some church issues. So it was not written to be reader-friendly, so to speak. But I have really enjoyed talking things over with the people who have come here, read it, and emailed me or commented. And I've used this blog occasionally to explain a conversation that started in the parking lot after meeting...

So the people who come here and read this, I never really wrote it for you, but I am very happy you're here. And for those people who've discussed this blog with me in comments or email, I've really enjoyed our chats.

And yes, that includes you, Bill.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The goal

I've spent some time on the Gospel (mainly in Romans) recently. It started out because I've been concerned that Christians have lost sight of it: we've gotten caught up in any number of pursuits, and have lost sight of the central message of the New Testament: that God has provided a way for sinners to be freed from the penalty and power of their sins.

But I've also been spending some time on the topic, because I believe the Gospel is the clearest character sketch of God that we have: we have seen His holiness, His heart, and His love for us in the Gospel. As I spend time thinking and meditating on the Gospel, I find myself with a fresh appreciation for the Person He is.

Having said that, I wanted to bring up a favourite Bible verse of mine:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them (Revelation 21:3, NASB)
I find this verse interesting, because it presents us with a wonderful thought: that God's purpose is to be among men. That's what He wants. He's not content to be in Heaven with men (and women) on earth; His desire is to have men with Him. Consider God's words to Moses: "They shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God." (Exodus 29:46, NASB). God's purpose in bringing the children of Israel from Egypt was "that I might dwell among them".

We tend to lose sight of what motivated God to hunt down sinners. It wasn't that He needed us, it wasn't that He has a job for us to do: it was because He wanted to have us with Him. We have a tendency to think God wants something from us: the opposite is true, He wants to be everything for us.

I made the statement earlier that I have a real problem with any sort of teaching that attributes an ulterior motive to God in salvation. I really want to emphasize this point. It's a terrible thing for us to slander God: When we present the Gospel as some sort of contract between God and man, we do exactly that. We cast aspersion on God's character, saying that He's the sort of Person who only acts in His own interest.

God is overwhelmingly kind. He is love. We need to be oh-so-careful that we don't have low thoughts of Him; of the One who pursued us to bring us to Heaven.




Monday, May 7, 2007

Light from Darkness

For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6, NASB)

I've been making a big deal out of justification and how it is completely, utterly free. This is the wonderful truth of justification set forth in the Scriptures. And we've touched on eternal life a little. Not nearly enough, but a brief nod. We need to get back there eventually. But now let's look at things a little differently.

I believe 2 Corinthians 4:6 gives the most succinct definition of Christianity (not merely salvation, although it includes that) in the Bible. It stands out as possibly the most wonderful and most humbling verse. God commanded light to shine out of darkness, and it did: "Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light." (Genesis 1:3, NASB). The same God has looked at sinful men and women, and commanded that light should shine out of their dark hearts: "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ".

Let's consider this a minute. Who made this decision? The God who called light to shine out of darkness. Remember Romans 4:17 ? "God, who... calls into being that which does not exist" (NASB). Yeah, Him: the God who refused to leave well enough alone. The God who'd rather give His Son than to let sinners get what they deserve. The God who relentlessly pursues Hell-bound sinners, in order to drag them kicking and screaming into eternal life.

God demonstrated something in creation that has never been duplicated in the physical realm: God called something to come out of nothing. Morally, this is identical to what He has done in salvation: "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." (Colossians 2:13 & 14, NASB). He took nothing, and turned it into something.

This is a miracle, no less than creation was.

We frequently obscure the shining out of God's glory from our hearts. We still carry around this thing the Bible calls "the flesh", and sometimes it's hard to see past it. But it's shining there none the less. Remember Paul? A better man than any of us, he experienced this very thing in Romans 7. But God shone His glory out of the darkness of Paul's heart. The same God who didn't need anything to work with when He commanded light to shine from darkness, the same One who called light to shine out of Paul's heart; calls light to shine out of our hearts.

There is a school of thought out there that you need "fruit" to show for repentance: that you can't be sure you're forgiven unless your life has changed. I don't agree with that completely, but there is a sense where they're right. That is, God's work in a sinner's heart must inevitably result in something wonderful, new, and possibly a little scary. But there is a danger in looking at the saved man or woman with an obsession for finding "fruit": the danger lies in mis-crediting it. God called light to shine from darkness, He works out "fruit" in me without my help.

There's also a danger in rushing to judgement on something like "fruit". There are things God calls "fruit" that we consider repulsive: Abraham proved himself justified by his willingness to murder his son (James 2:21), Rahab proved her faith by committing treason (James 2:25). We're woefully bad judges of good fruit, and we need to bear that in mind. For an interesting read, go through Hebrews 11 some time, and compare what Hebrews says about the people there with what the Old Testament says about them. Consider Joseph: a wonderful young man, apparently without fault (although some think he was boastful about his dreams). What does Hebrews 11 commend him for? "By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones" (Hebrews 11:22, NASB). Apparently of all the wonderful things Joseph did, this is what was worthy of record in the "faith chapter".

2 Corinthians 4:6 is a wonderful verse, because it describes God's work in our hearts in terms of how difficult it is: God is doing the impossible in His work in the hearts of sinners. But it's a humbling verse, because it shows just what we have to offer God: absolutely nothing.

But I wanted to bring up this wonderful, humbling verse; because it gives another perspective on salvation: the focus is on God's work in us. It reminds us that He didn't justify us just to desert us. Rather He's taken us in as His work: and He will certainly accomplish in us what He has set out to do (Philippians 1:6 ).

And what's the end that He has in store for us? "For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29, NASB). There is a goal He has for us, a goal He is working towards right now. And to some degree, we who have been justified and have been given eternal life are all showing that now: He is bringing us into conformity wih His Son. He is making us all "little Christs".

He starts by uniting us with Christ in death and resurrection, but He continues by constant work in us: revealing the eternal life He has given us.

"Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2, NASB). There is a day coming when we'll look at Him face to face: this is our goal, this is what motivates us. We'll see Him, and we'll be like Him. Not because God needs us, not because He has an ulterior motive in saving sinners. But because He wants us to share His delight in His Son.

And all the work He does for us and in us is to this end.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Eternal Life

Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3, NASB)

As I mentioned earlier, justification is not the whole story. There is another idea in Scripture, new birth. Justification saves us from the punishment or penalty our sins deserve before God: it is the acquittal God hands down that guarantees our sins will never be brought up by God to condemn us. But new birth is fundamentally different: it gives us eternal life. Justification is a legal idea, new birth is an organic idea.

I've already mentioned that the epistles protray us in various states of death, burial, and resurrection; all following the path of the Son of God, "who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness" (Romans 1:4, NASB):
  • Ephesians protrays the unregenerate as dead in sins (Ephesians 2:1), and the believer as raised with Christ (Ephesians 2:5), ascended with Him into Heaven, sitting with Him at God's right hand (Ephesians 2:6).
  • Romans presents the unregenerate as very much alive in sins (Romans 1:18--31), the believer as crucified with Christ, buried with Him, and raised with Him (Romans 6:3, 4).
  • Galatians presents the believer as dead to the Law, but now living to God (Galatians 2:19); crucified with Christ, but now living in His power (Galatians 2:20); and crucified to the world (Galatians 6:14).
  • Colossians presents the unbeliever as dead in sins (Colossians 2:13), the believer as buried with Christ, and raised with Him (Colossians 2:12).

As a side note, I've met a lot of Christians who built their entire theology around the idea that unbelievers are "spiritually dead", as in Ephesians. But a simple glance at Romans indicates the Scripture also contemplates unbelievers as very much alive in their sin.

John's Gospel presents the Lord Jesus as the one who brings life to the dead (John 5:25--29). This is not exactly the same idea as the resurrection with Christ in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians; but I think it is closely related. John's Gospel discusses the unregenerate as needing an entirely new life in order to be part of the new creation. So John 3 includes the famous discussion with Nicodemus, where the Lord Jesus tells him he needs to be "born again" in order to enter the kingdom of God. John 4 includes the discussion with the woman at Sychar, who needs to drink "living water". John 5 presents the Son of God who will call forth the dead in two resurrections: one for the just, one for the unjust (John 5:29). John 6 centers on the Son of God who is the Bread of Life that came down from Heaven to give life to the world (John 6:33); and the one who eats this bread will neither hunger nor thirst (John 6:35).

Eternal life, like justification, is not something we earn, but something God gives to the one who believes: "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day... Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life." (John 6:40, 47; NASB).

I want to keep eternal life and justification distinct, because Scripture does. But I maintain that the one who is justified also has eternal life. God gives both justification and eternal life to the sinner who believes. And I refuse to be drawn into an argument about which one happens first.

But eternal life carries implications that justification doesn't. Justification implies no change in the justified: he doesn't stop being a sinner just because he has been acquitted! But eternal life absolutely implies the recipient is changed. How could he not be? He used to be dead, now he is alive.

If you are a believing sinner, you are acquitted: you are free to go your way, and God will never condemn you for your sins. But if you have been given eternal life, then you have in fact been changed. This now implies some things about your new life. This is where we see the question "What about the fruit?".

The first implication is, you need to feed the eternal life. Eternal life, by definition, can't end in death. But just like the natural person has a life that needs to be fed, the child of God has an eternal life that needs to be fed. The Lord Jesus discusses this in John 6:50--58. Jesus declared Himself to be food that gives eternal life. The believer receives this eternal life from Him in v. 47. But then He gives eternal life to the one who feeds on Him in vv. 55--57. The first eating in v. 35--40 is a one time deal: believe, and you have eternal life. But vv. 55--57 reveal something a little different: continue eating---feeding---to sustain your eternal life.

The Lord Jesus declared Himself to be the one from Heaven to give His flesh to us as food and His blood to us as drink. Contrary to Roman Catholic theology, I don't consider this a reference to the Lord's Supper. It's not the actual bread and wine of the Lord's Supper that gives us eternal life. But then, the Lord's choice of bread and wine for the Lord' Supper is certainly a reminder of this passage.

The Lord's offering us His flesh and His blood implies His death. And it is exactly as we feed on Him as the One who died for us that our eternal life is sustained.

How do we do that? Well, I'm not sure I have a complete answer. But I would suggest we start with a constant remembrance of the One who died for us. I would suggest this includes constant Bible reading and study, prayer, and meditation.

I suggested before that trying to force-grow fruit results in tasteless fruit. But keeping the tree from which the fruit grows nourished and healthy has the opposite effect. When a Christian is pressured or panicked into producing "fruit", it tends to be of inferior quality; if it is actually "fruit" at all, and not merely the offering of the flesh within him. But when a Christian invests time and effort into the Word of God, prayer, meditation: when he feeds on Christ, then the fruit he produces is of an overwhelmingly superior quality.

but we preach [a] Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness... For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2; NASB)


Friday, May 4, 2007

Juicy Fruit

I want to spend a little time in (partial) answer to the "fruit" questions KingJaymz mentioned earlier. Yesterday I tried to look at Romans 6, but I got off on a tangent. Perhaps some exposition and discussion of Romans 6 would be a good idea, but I think it's just as important to answer the questions KingJaymz alluded to.

There is a tendency when we talk about the completeness of justification to react against it. I suppose that is partly because the Gospel teaches us what we are: helpless, hopeless, worthless. No one likes to accept charity, and the Gospel is the ultimate hand-out. It really hurts our ego to see that there's not a thing we can do to buy God off.

But there's another objection too: the instinctive knowledge that God doesn't justify us simply so we can keep doing what we did before.

Years ago, I was younger and more foolish than I am now. I was struggling with the question of eternal security: is it true that a sinner who is justified is justified forever? I was speaking to someone who had been a missionary for years, and he told me "When we were in Africa, we didn't teach the people there eternal security, because otherwise they would just go out and sin". Contemplate that for a while. Isn't that terrible? Not only does it undercut a fellow-believer's sense of security, it actually casts aspersion on the goodness of God! It tells the believer that unless there's something in it for Him, God isn't interested in saving them.

Consider the words of KingJaymz: "I don't think we hear this often enough because it is considered 'dangerous' by many". I think this is precisely what is behind the rampant legalism in the Church today: a fear of what someone might do if they were told there is nothing hanging over their heads. I think that's why Lordship Salvation has become so popular: it codifies a cautious theology.

So what does the Scripture offer as the solution? Does it offer both a complete justification and a Christian life free from lawlessness? Well, yes it does:
Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:8--14, NASB).

The Scripture teaches on the one hand a complete justification: those who believe are justified, declared righteous, acquitted from guilt. But it also teaches that those who are justified are dead with Christ, buried with Him, and raised again with Him. We are free from sin because we are dead with Christ. But we bring forth "fruit" because we are raised with Him too.

"Dead to sin" is a wonderful expression. It goes so much further than anything we can come up with. There is no more complete severance than death. The Scripture mentions a few things the believer is "dead to", including sin (Romans 6), the law (Romans 7, Galatians 2), and the world (Galatians 6). One real problem in modern Christianity is, we simply can't accept our place as "dead". As long as we try to be less than fully dead in an area, we'll have trouble in it.

But we're not only dead, we're also raised: this is the Biblical answer to the "what about the fruit?" question. As risen, resurrected people, we are able to bring forth fruit to God. Notice the motivation here: we tend to think in terms of incentive and punishment, but the term "fruit" implies organic growth: we bring forth fruit that reflects what we are. When what we are has changed, so does the fruit. Or, in the language of Romans 6, we are to live as "those that are alive from the dead". Not as those who are out to prove something, but as those that have undergone a fundamental transformation.

If we consider Romans 7 and 8, we see that there is still a problem within: we still carry around what Romans refers to as "the flesh". We're stuck with it until the "redemption of the body" in Romans 8. And it has a tendency to cause us lots of trouble: Galatians 5 and 6 give us a good deal of insight into that battle. So no, not everything a true believer does is good. True believers have this "flesh" too: there will still be problems in our lives.

The fruit we buy in the grocery store here where I live often tastes and feels like styrofoam. Why? Because they try to force it to grow, and pick it before it's ripe, so their urban customers can buy it "in season". Similarly, force-grown fruit in the spiritual world is tasteless and inferior. Are believers to bear fruit? Absolutely! But we need to allow the Lord to do the growing, not us. Consider James' account of Abraham:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS," and he was called the friend of God. (James 2:21--23, NASB)
Abraham had real faith, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. That's Romans 4, right? But did Abraham's faith result in complacency? No, it didn't: it resulted in hiim obeying God. How long did it take? About forty years. God doesn't rush when it comes to growing fruit, neither should we. Abraham was justified by faith, and about forty years later, he proved it in his works.

Did Abraham spend those forty years in doubt, concerned that maybe he wasn't justified at all? Neither should we. We trust God's word that we are justified, and we bear fruit in His timetable.

So while I fully expect every justified sinner to bear fruit, I caution strongly against rushing the process.

Please don't take this as a complete answer. Romans 6--8 takes us through several arguments on how this all works. There are complicated implications of these truths. But if we try and hold back from declaring the complete work of Christ on behalf of the sinner---whether by demanding good works for salvation, or by witholding assurance of salvation until a person's life has achieved some level of morality---we are stepping outside the bounds of Scripture. And, we rob the believer of the calm certainty of God's love, which is the foundation of the Christian life.








Two Things You Can't Change

Romans 5 and 6 bring two things into contrast, which I'd like to comment on: Romans 5 introduces us to the love of God (Romans 5:5). It's interesting that the one epistle above all others that lays out justification, redemption, and salvation is silent as to the love of God until after justification. In Romans, God's love is show to those who are justified (Romans 5:1--10); John's Gospel tells of the love of God for the world (John 3:16), but Romans has a narrower scope, although perhaps a deeper view.

But Romans 6 brings out (in contrast), God's opinion of us. Actually, God's opinion of us is displayed in rather clearly in chapters 1--3, where condemnation to all men is laid out clearly as the just reward for what we have done. But Romans 6 takes us deeper into that, showing us that God's opinion of us is very poor indeed. Perhaps the conclusion of this lesson is in Romans 7 "For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good... Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:19--21, 24, NASB).

So on the one hand, God loves us immeasurably; on the other, His opinion of us is extremely low. God's opinion of us is so bad, that He actually puts us to death to free us from sin's power: that's Romans 6. But His love for us is so great, that He actually gave His Son to be put to death to free us from the sin's penalty: that's Romans 5.

So we have something of a paradox: God loves us, but holds no illusions about us. I have stated in the assembly that God's love is irrational. That is, it is love that has no explanation. God loves us because of who He is, rather than because of any value He sees in us. God loves for no reason.

There are two very reassuring consequences of this paradox:
  1. You can't possibly make God love you more: but you can't possibly make Him love you less either. God can't love you any more than He does. He just can't. But because His love is without reason---because His love is based in the Person He is, rather than the worth of those He loves---He will never love you less. We might say: God can't love you more, and He refuses to love you less.
  2. You can't change God's opinion of you. You can't make it better, because He sees right through you: He's already evaluated you, and His conclusions weren't flattering. On the other hand, you can never surprise Him. He knows you better than you know yourself, and no matter how badly you fail, you won't shock Him. He already knows exactly how bad you are: in fact, you don't know yourself nearly as well as God knows you. Sometimes we're so bad we surprise even ourselves, but we never surprise Him. If He didn't already know you were a lost cause, He wouldn't have given His Son to die for you.

This is precisely where our confidence with God starts. We can be confident in Him, because "while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6, NASB). The same God who thought it was a good idea to save worthless sinners is the God who loves us now.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

What shall we say then?

"What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?" (Romans 6:1, KJV).

This is the question that we must certainly answer after my previous discussion of justification. If justification means we can sin as much as we want with no fear of God going back on His word and disowning us, should we just continue to sin? Let's examine the Scripture: "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" (Romans 6:1&2, KJV).

The answer is "No! we shouldn't just continue in sin". OK, we all knew that; but why? Why not continue in sin? Because justification is not the whole story. It is absolutely true that the believing sinner is acquitted of all sin, past, present and future; it is absolutely true that no matter what she does, the believing sinner will never be condemned by God. But it is also true that the believing sinner is not only justified.

Justification is the start of the Christian life. But it is not all of the Christian life.

So what does Romans 6 teach us? It tells us that we (the justified) are dead to sin. Catch that: if a sinner believes God and is justified, that doesn't imply that the sinner has actually changed. Justification doesn't imply a change in the one justified. But, that same believing sinner also becomes a work of God, where God begins changing that sinner. And God's work in changing the sinner certainly implies change!

But Romans 6 tells us of the change in somewhat brutal language: God doesn't change sinners by cleaning them up. God changes sinners by crucifying them. "Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?" (Romans 6:3). God's plan is this: Christ, the Son of God, came here and died for us. So now, God's wisdom dictates that we have died with Him.

Now, that word "baptism" might cause some consternation for some people. I won't be adamant on this point, but I believe that our death with Christ is true of every believer. I tend to believe that the term "baptism" does indeed refer to water baptism, but I don't think this passage teaches baptism makes us dead to sin. Why not? Because in at least one other place, Scripture teaches our death with Christ with no mention of baptism (2 Cor. 5:14). Further, our identification with Christ, in broader terms, is not linked with baptism in every Epistle (in Colossians, we are dead with Christ, "buried with Him in baptism" (vv. 2:12, 20, 3:1); in Ephesians, we aren't dead with Christ at all, but are "risen wth Him", and baptism isn't mentioned (v. 2:1); Galatians says we are "crucified with Christ", and baptism isn't mentioned (v. 2:19--20)). I have some ideas about the role of baptism, but I am not ready to share those here. I'm sure the Baptist Church where I used to be a member wouldn't approve; and I doubt "open brethren" would be willing to listen to me, if they knew my views on baptism...

So let's go on with the assumption that every believer is dead with Christ.

Now, Romans 6 doesn't stop there, so we shouldn't either. But we do need to pause and let this one sink in. Why shouldn't we continue in sin? If we have a free pass, as it were, why should we refrain? Because we are dead to sin. "How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?"

This is a terribly difficult idea to get our arms around. God has declared us righteous: that is justification. But God has also crucified us with Christ: this is sanctification.

Justification frees us from the penalty of our sins, but it does nothing to save us from the power of sin over us. It is our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection that saves us from sin's power.

A major paradigm shift has occurred between Romans 4 and Romans 6. It actually occurs somewhere in the middle of Romans 5. We have gone from examining the objective to examining the subjective. What do I mean by that? I mean we've gone from looking strictly at what God says about us, to looking at what God is doing in us.

Now we're in the realm that causes a lot of people a lot of grief. If you make the mistake of believing from experience, you'll end up with no end of pain and suffering here. Romans 1--4 are purely objective. God has offered justification to sinners who believe Him. But now we look at what God is doing to change us. When believers look inside and see a lack of progress, they tend to despair. That's because they try to judge the objective from the subjective. We ought to go the other way: we ought to believe that God is working, because He has declared it to be so. We ought to be saying "my peace with God is based solely on His declaration that I am righteous; not my progress of being changed into Christ's image." Or, as J. N. Darby famously said "It is Christ's work for us, not His work in us, that gives us peace."

But back to the text: God's way of keeping us from continuing in sin is, He has crucified us with Christ. We are dead to sin.

Please don't try to verify this. Romans doesn't contain a single command until Romans 6:11... we haven't gotten to the point of actually doing anything yet. We're still in the learning mode, not the doing mode. If you have believed what God has promised, you have been justified. If you have been justified, you have been crucified with Christ. It doesn't matter what your personal experience is. It doesn't matter if you are dead-positive (heh) that you are not dead to sin. It doesn't matter if you are convinced that you are very much alive to sin and you have a mountain of evidence to prove it. The Scripture declares that you are dead to sin, and you need to accept it.

What is the result of being dead to sin? Let's look at Romans 6 again: "Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin." (Romans 6:6&7, KJV). There are four actors in this little two-verse drama. There is the victim ('we'), the villain ('sin'), and the henchmen ('our old man', 'the body of sin'). And we see that the sinner is actually a slave to sin, and the enforcer of this slavery, the slave-driver, is the 'body of sin'. But we who are crucified with Christ are dead to sin. Note, we're not dead to the 'body of sin': the body of sin hasn't gone anywhere. But our old man---the person I was---has died, and now I am no longer under sin's rule. That body is still there: I still have what Romans 7 calls 'the body of death' and 'the flesh'; but it has been "destroyed", or a better translation would be "annulled". I am no longer under sin's power, and the tool that once ruled me, the 'body of sin' is now powerless because of my new state as one 'dead to sin'.

The most depressing chapter in the Bible, Romans 7, is still to come. The believer's struggle is not over yet. But what Romans 6 does, is show us precisely what our relationship to sin is. We started with the question, why not just keep sinning, if we have been given a free pass out of condemnation? The answer is simply this: We are dead to sin. Sin is no longer our master.

But it's not all negative. Consider the next bit: "Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God." (Romans 6:8--10, KJV). Christ didn't only die, He was buried, and raised again on the third day. In the same way, we who have been crucified with Him aren't just left to rot in the grave: God raised us up into a new life.

I bring that up, because it seems to me that a lot of Christians get to the start of Romans 6 and start fascinating about crucifixion with Christ. That's not wrong, at least not in the sense that it's not extra-Biblical. But the Scripture doesn't end there. It goes on to discuss our resurrection with Christ too. We're not just cut off from our "old man"; we're also raised into "newnes of life".

And for the first time in Romans, we get a command "Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:11, KJV).

What a command to be the first! There's no pressure in the fourth chapter: no "closing the sale" in the Gospel. Evangelicals do that a lot: they like to give altar calls or have someone repeat a "sinner's prayer". Romans doesn't. But when we come to reckoning ourselves dead, to seeing our place "with Christ" in death, burial, and resurrection; then the Scripture begins to command.

So we are commanded to "reckon". What's reckoning? It's giving an account. It's considering something as true.

And what is the outcome? That we are to be free from sin: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Romans 6:12--14, KJV).

This post is already too long. I've only scratched the surface here, and it's still too much for a blog post. There's much more to be said, but I need to stop for now.

But the point is, justification means I cannot possibly endanger my status as one acquitted by God. But instead of leaving us here as forgiven sinners, God has begun to work in us, to save us out of the sin that enslaved us. Romans 3 & 4 tells us how God frees from the penalty of sin: Romans 6 tells us how God delivers from the power of sin.


The God Who Justifies

I really want to take a look at Romans 4 & 5, especially after the claims I made about justification meaning I can go out and sin without fear of condemnation. The Scripture doesn't present that as something we want to do, nor as something we should do, but we don't get that until Romans 5 & 6. Justification is entirely a work of God, and we don't want to try and beef it up, so to speak, with our own efforts. There's a reason justification is presented in Romans without a lot of the fluff that modern evangelicals add to it.

But before moving off chapter 4, I feel I ought to mention three things that are in Romans 4. I wish I could expound on them, but I don't have time to do much more than notice them:

"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." (Romans 4:5, KJV)

"(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were." (Romans 4:17, KJV)

"But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead;" (Romans 4:5, KJV)

These three verses give us three descriptions of God, which are brought out especially in the Gospel. We do well to remember that the Gospel is primarily about God, not about us. We very rightly look at the Gospel as a wonderful story of God's love to us, and we (rightly) happily remember it as our own salvation from Hell: but in the end, the Gospel is one of the clearest pictures of the heart of God: a heart so overflowing with love for the unlovable, that He would do the unthinkable to save them.

So the four descriptions of God in Romans 4 are these: him that justifieth the ungodly; God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were; and him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.

Him that justifieth the ungodly: God is characterized as the one who loves the unlovable. It isn't hard to love the lovable. It isn't hard to justify the godly (remember, "justify" means "acquit"). But it takes God to love the unlovable, to justify the ungodly. The Mosaic Law contained warnings about justifying the wicked: they strictly forbade it (De. 25:1; Isa. 5:23). Why? Because man cannot justly justify the wicked. That is to say, our concept of justifying the wicked is that we simply let the matter drop, pretend it didn't happen. But God's justifying the ungodly was actually done justly: that is, He provided a Substitute to be punished, to take the penalty in the place of the wicked sinner. Consider Romans 3:24--26 "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." (KJV). Did you catch that? Because the Lord Jesus died in our place, God can both "be just" and "be the justifier of him which believeth". The Lord Jesus' dying for us has resulted in God's being able to act in love without ignoring justice.

What does that tell us about God? It tells us that He is willing to do the unthinkable in order to take sinners to Heaven. It tells us that God is good.

God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were: God is the one who "quickens the dead". Not only the One who can quicken the dead, but the One who actually does it. "Quicken" means "bring to life". God is described as the One who brings the dead to life.

Further, He's the one who "calls those things which are not as though they are". This one sounds funny in King James English, almost like God is delusional. But that's not what it means. It means that God is able and willing to make declarations that cannot be contradicted. In the immediate context, God has declared believing sinners to be just, even though they aren't. That doesn't mean God doesn't know what you're really like. It means God has made a declaration that cannot be contradicted. The Judge has dismissed the case, and the defendant can walk free, regardless of whether the accusations are true.

But think about this for a minute. God is also the one who can make the untrue true. He can bring the dead to life. He can make the unjust just. The Christian Gospel starts with justification: with an absolute declaration that God won't punish us for our sins if we believe. But it doesn't end there. There are 16 chapters in Romans, the wonderful truth of justification is brought out in chapters 3 & 4: there are 12 more. God doesn't justify us to leave us as worthless sinners. I know what I said yesterday, but listen to what I'm saying now. Justification is the start of something more.

1 Corinthians 4:6 says, "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (KJV). The same God who said "let their be light" and the light shone from darkness is the God who "hath shined in our hearts". The same God who makes something out of nothing, who calls light to shine out of darkness, who brings the dead to life; is working in the hearts of the sinners He justifies.

Justification is the start of the Christian life. It is the absolute, objective declaration of God that we rest on for assurance and comfort. But it's not the end. Those who are justified are now the objects of God's work.

"Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." (Romans 8:30, KJV).

Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead: The God we believe for justification is the same God who raised up the Lord Jesus from the dead. This is not merely the "quickening" we've already talked about. This is something bigger, better, grander.

It was through His resurrection that the Lord Jesus was declared to be the Son of God in power (Romans 1: 4). It was not merely that God touched a dead man who got up alive. It was that God was declaring, according to "the Spirit of Holiness", that this was Son of God.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was not merely "Raising from the Dead Part IV": the Lord Jesus raised 3 people from the dead in the Scriptural record (there may have been more that aren't mentioned): Jarius' daughter, the widow's son at Nain, and Lazarus. But they all died again. They all came out of the grave more or less as they went in. Jesus Christ, while rising from the dead in the same body, was raised as "the firstfruits of them that slept" (1 Corinthians 15: 20, KJV). Christ's Resurrection was the start of what Scripture calls the New Creation.

There are many who would deny the Resurrection: mainly worldlings, but also many in Christendom. Many Christians are more and more denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is an insidious teaching that cuts to the core of Christianity "For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." (1 Corinthians 15:16--19, KJV). Without a risen Christ, we are unjustified, Hell-bound sinners.

When Paul was on Mars' Hill (the Areopagus) in Athens, it was the Resurrection that proved to be the watershed: "And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter." (Acts 17:32, KJV). Things haven't changed that much since then: the Resurrection is still the lynch-pin of our faith. People are willing to think about a vague, nebulous god out there somewhere: they aren't happy to be reminded of the God who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Justification

The Gospel of the Grace of God centers on the idea of justification. What does it mean to be justified? It means "God declares you righteous". It's an acquittal.

Please don't make the mistake of thinking that means anything has changed in the one who is justified. When God declares someone righteous, He is simply saying "I won't hold your sins against you". That's it, that's all "justification" means.

When God justifies a sinner, that sinner is still a sinner. True, he's a sinner who will never stand condemned before God, but he's still a sinner. Justification doesn't make you a better person, it just means you've been acquitted. If you have been justified, the sins you committed---the big ones and the little ones---are still sins you committed. You don't un-commit those sins. But you have the assurance that God won't hold them against you.

And a sinner who's been justified doesn't suddenly stop sinning. But that doesn't affect her justification: God has declared that sinner to be righteous. The declaration has been made, and no sin before or after God has made the declaration affects what He has declared.

Now, the Scripture talks about something else, being born again. Let's be plain: I don't believe there is any Scriptural basis to say that justification and new birth happen separately. They happen at the same time, and I'm not about to weigh in on which one happens first. That's the sort of "angels dancing on the head of a pin" discussion that just gets in the way. But we need to understand that they are two distinct events. The believer has been justified, and he has been born again. But there are terrible problems for those believers who confuse the two. Perhaps we can discuss new birth another time, but for now, we'll restrict our discussion to justification.

Justification is a legal idea: it's an acquittal. It means God has dismissed all charges.

If I go out, having been justified, and I commit some heinous sin; that doesn't mean I'm no longer justified. God is righteous: He can't go back on His word and say "Well, I said I wouldn't hold your sins against you, but since you did that terrible thing, forget it! The deal's off!". God's not like that. God can't lie (Titus 1:2).

Assurance of salvation is based on our assurance of justification. This is an important point: there are too many Christians who look for assurance of salvation in their good works. They seem to think that they are justified by faith, but have to work to be sure. In contrast, Colossians tells us: "As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him" (Colossians 2:6, KJV, emphasis mine). As long as we're looking at ourselves, we'll never be confident that God won't condemn us: we are sure that we are justified because we are sure that God cannot lie.

I'm not trying to suggest that we ought not to have anything to show for having met God. I'm not trying to say we ought not to concern ourselves with whether we are living up to our calling. What I am trying to say is, we are sure we are justified because the Word of God declares that God justifies the ungodly.

Does this mean a true believer can sin? Absolutely! Does it mean we can just go ahead and keep on sinning, because we are guaranteed that we won't be punished for it? Yup. That's exactly what it means. Please understand this: anything less than a total and complete acquittal from all sins, past and future, wouldn't be enough. Anything less than that would leave a sinner doomed for an eternity in Hell. Because what the Word of God declares (and, less importantly, what every believer eventually experiences) is, we continue to fall short of the glory of God: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23, ESV). The sins and shortcomings will last until we finally meet Him face to face: any "gospel" that makes justification only apply to sins in the past is no gospel at all, but rather taunts the poor sinner for his inability to measure up.

Should a believer do that? Should someone who's justified just start a life of debauchery and wickedness, confident that God won't condemn him or her for it? Well, that's a different question. We'll get to Romans 6 later, but the answer is "no". You can: you can live a life of sin, and God won't go back on His word. But there are very good reasons not to: reasons that go far beyond the idea of punishment.

But as someone wiser than I am pointed out: if the question doesn't come up, you're not teaching the Biblical gospel.*

And in the end, if you have trouble with the idea that justification is based on what you believe, rather than on what you do; then you need to re-read Romans 1--4 again. "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness."(Romans 4:5, KJV).



* Alan Gamble gave some messages at Greenwood Hills in 2005 entitled "Riches in Romans", in which he discussed this point. Unfortunately, they took that series from their website, no doubt to save space for the messages from 2006.