Monday, April 30, 2007

God is Good

The first real implication of the Gospel of God is perhaps the greatest: God is good.

When I say "God is good", I mean it in both senses the English sentence indicates:
  1. God is morally upright, or blameless. God doesn't ever do anything wrong, He is completely right. You and I have certainly done things we knew were wrong. Everyone has. God hasn't. Ever. Not once. The Biblical term for this is sense of good is "righteous".
  2. God is kind. God does kind things for us, at great personal cost.

The history of the Gospel is something like this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came down here to earth, walked around for 30-something years; and then was beaten and crucified by the people of His time. He was buried, and on the third day, He was raised from the dead. He spoke to several hundred people over some 40 days, then was taken up into Heaven in the sight of several people.

How does this infer God's goodness?

First, it demonstrates our own badness. Jesus Christ did nothing that wasn't good. He healed people, provided food for them, and taught them. He never did anything that was less than perfect. And what did we do? We (I use the term to mean people in general) beat Him, hung Him on a cross, and left Him to die. Consider that for a moment: we abused and crucified the Son of God. When we consider just how bad we are, we are shocked to see that God cares about us. This is the goodness of God: He, knowing how bad we are, wants us to be with Him.

Second, it demonstrates the price He was willing to pay for us. While we frequently say "Salvation is free"; the fact of the matter is, it wasn't free for Him. Our right to come into God's presence was very, very costly. It was unimaginably costly. None of us would honestly say it was a good idea, if the truth were known. But the goodness of God is this: God thought it was worthwhile to give the priceless to buy the worthless.

Third, it demonstrates His refusal to compromise. God was unwilling to compromise His goodness in either direction: He didn't balk at saving sinners, but He also didn't take an easy way out. Anyone else would have either abandoned the whole idea and just let us burn in Hell; or would have come up with some sort of compromise "Don't worry about that whole sin thing...". The goodness of God is: God looked unflinchingly at the cost of bringing sinners to Heaven, and paid it.

God's goodness is demonstrated in that He saves sinners, but not by compromising His own righteousness.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Gospel of God

I never really noticed it before, but some events in the last couple years have led me to the belief that the Gospel of the Grace of God is largely being neglected amongst Christians today. I'm not talking about those who overtly attack the Gospel: not Russelites or Mormons. I'm talking about Evangelicals who have (usually for some "good" reasons) let it slip. So I wanted to take a post to present, and possibly discuss, the Gospel of God (Romans 1:).

The Gospel of God is simply this: all men (and women) are ruined, hopeless sinners (Romans 2:1--3; 3:9, 23). We are incapable of being "good enough" for God (Romans 3:20), and thus have no hope of earning God's approval; rather, we are certain of eternal damnation (Romans 1:32). But God has provided something for us, the "righteousness of God", which is apart from anything we can do (Romans 3:21--22). That is, that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come here to earth, and has died as a sacrifice for our sins (Romans 3:24--26). Based on this sacrifice, God will declare anyone who believes Him, who accepts His offer, as righteous (Romans 3:24--26; 4:5). There is nothing to do, no commitments to make; the only stipulation is, that you believe God, which means you stop trying to earn His favour (Romans 4:5). You're not good enough for God, and can't possibly be. You can't earn God's approval. The righteousness that God offers is totally free: no strings attached. But He won't let you try and add anything to it: no good deeds, no bargaining chips. Sinners who believe God are justified. God doesn't justify good people, He justifies "the ungodly".

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

That's it. That's the Christian gospel. If you don't trust me, read the first four chapters of Romans several times through. It'll fill in some details (none of them flattering to you), but the main points are pretty much the same. And after the first four chapters, you'll read the first verse of the fifth:

"Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:" (Romans 5:1).

That's the point of the Gospel of God: that sinners like you and me and have peace with God.

There are a myriad of issues we could discuss that result from this, but I think I'll save those for another day. Let's just bask in God's goodness for now.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Ego Trip

There are some terrible things lurking under the dark underbelly of “brethrenism”. They are perhaps not unique to “brethrenism”, but they are certainly problems we have: so they’re problems we have to deal with.

One problem in “Brethrenism” is, the Ego Trip.

One reason I want to discuss the Ego Trip is, it’s a problem I personally have trouble dealing with. There it is, out in the open. I find ego trips exciting and appealing. I like to think I’m special.

Wherever there are people who haven’t yet experienced the “redemption of the body” (and that means all of us, because the “redemption of the body” hasn’t happened yet (Romans 8:23)), we have this thing the Scripture refers to as “the flesh”.

I believe “brethren” have been too lazy in their theology, confusing the “old man” and “the flesh”. But I suppose that’s not terribly important right now. What’s important is, there is “sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3), the flesh is a vestige of the sinner I was (and the sinner you were), and we carry it around with us until we die. That is the great problem in Romans 7.

When we get together with other Christians, when we gather in the assembly, we all bring this thing we call “the flesh” with us. That means, the gathering itself is infested with this thing we call “the flesh”.

The flesh is a nasty, deceitful thing. It can masquerade itself as a good thing, it can even take a good idea and turn it bad. For example, Pharisaism is basically the flesh acting religiously. It was the workings of people who claimed to love God, to worship Him; but when the Son of God came, the Pharisees couldn’t get rid of Him fast enough.

It’s no different 2000 years later. We, like the Pharisees, carry around the same flesh that is quite content to be religious, just so long as it isn’t required to give Christ the place He deserves. And like the Pharisees, we’re really good at making our self-will and selfishness sound very pious.

Every Christian group has the same problem, but because of how we gather, “brethren” have some unusual symptoms of the root problem.

Consider a typical “brethren” remembrance meeting: we sit quietly in a room with a table, on which are bread and wine. We sing, pray, and read Scripture; then someone stands up and prays, then breaks the bread into pieces and passes it around. After that, he prays and hands around the cup of wine. Is there opportunity for the flesh in that?

We in “brethren” camps will sometimes make some rather arrogant statements about other Christians who have a clergyman to run their meetings. And I agree that the clergy system is wrong. But can we honestly say we don’t have another set or problems, when we allow anyone who “feels led” to speak out, pray, offer a hymn, or stand up and take over the meeting like that?
Please understand I’m not suggesting we’re wrong to do what we do. In fact, I’m convinced of the opposite. I’m convinced it is exactly what we should do, what 1 Corinthians 14 teaches we ought to do.

But I want to try and make the point: in our meetings, there is tremendous opportunity for the flesh to rear its ugly head. I suppose this is probably equally true for any church meeting, but in a more mainstream church, the problem is limited to the clergy, or the people who are up front, actively participating.
So in “open” assemblies, where the meetings are largely structured and planned: the opportunities for the flesh are still there, they’re just limited to the people who are selected to actively participate.

With this rather bleak picture in our minds, let’s consider a concrete example. Let’s say we’re in an assembly like the one where I fellowship: Sunday nights are usually unscripted, “open ministry”. That means, any brother who feels he has something to say can stand up and preach. Sometimes it’ll be more than one person, sometimes it’ll be just a single person that gets up.

But essentially, anyone can unilaterally decide to take over that particular meeting and preach to the assembly. It’s actually a good thing, but there is certainly opportunity for the flesh, isn’t there?

I think for many “brethren”, the Ego Trip of “open ministry” appears to be irresistible. I want to be careful not to accuse anyone of anything, but I can’t help but notice that certain brothers seem to find the opportunity of a captive audience just too much temptation. Night after night, these same brothers will stand up in the meeting, and say basically nothing.

This Ego Trip is a major concern for me, because I have from time to time spoken up in the meetings, and I actually enjoy it. I remember someone once commenting that it was hard to speak publicly, and my thought was “not really”. I used to be a schoolteacher, speaking in front of people is really not that intimidating. Actually, it’s fun. But that’s precisely the problem.

We’re not in the assembly to see ourselves as the center of attention. We’re there for the Lord Jesus to be the Center.

So I’m having to be painfully honest now, and admit that I like the Ego Trip. I like standing up in front and speaking. I find it exhilarating.

And right now, that is a major concern to me. Partly because I’m in a bit of a spiritual crisis right now. I’ve declared myself Post Brethren, and I meant that. I believe 95% of what “brethren” teach, but I see that we have utterly failed to act it out. And that realization is making me question my place in so-called “brethren assemblies”. On the other hand, as I consider whether I ought to stay in “assemblies” or perhaps go elsewhere, I have to admit there is a nasty thought in the back of my head. If I go elsewhere I might lose my ability to speak out in the meetings. Now, I am a firm believer that every Christian is a priest: we are all given the place of extolling the Lord in the assembly (1 Peter 2:9). I am a firm opponent of clerisy. But I suspect that the little thought in the back of my head is ego, not conviction. I am almost convinced it’s a reaction to the prospect of losing a chance in the limelight, rather than a fear of failing to live up to my conviction that all believers are priests. I’m afraid of not being recognized as someone special, rather than being afraid that Christ will be dishonored by the clerisy I might find somewhere else.

Monday, April 9, 2007

I'm waiting on some brutal JUnit tests to return, debugging the plumbing of an overdue project. Life is good.

I'm a bit of a reader, and I've occasionally had people ask me about some book or another. Well, no one's asked me in a while, but they really did, once upon a time! So I started thinking "What books would I recommend to someone who wanted to read some classic 'brethren' stuff?" And here's a short list I compiled. A friend and I digitized most of these books at one time, and it's possible I have digital copies lying around on some hard drive or another. If I can find them, I'll make sure they're available online somewhere.

OK, before the list, let me point out that this is probably of no interest to anyone except me. But this is my blog, and even though there are [apparently] a couple people who actually read it, I'm going to selfishly use my blog for my own personal interests.

  1. Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 12 Occasionally you hear someone say "I tried to read Darby, but I couldn't get into it" or something like that. As someone who's read a lot of Darby, let me give you this hint: start with Volume 12. Darby's not a great writer (a great thinker, yes, but a terrible writer); but Volume 12 is almost entirely transcripts of his gospel sermons: they're written in something close to plain English. Further, Darby's whole perspective stems from his understanding of God's grace: God's grace is the topic of Volume 12. In fact, it might be the best book written on the subject, period.
  2. The Believer Established, by C. A. Coates. This is CAC's primer on the Christian life, intended for a young person. This book is not perfect, but it is very good. The last chapter gets a little on the "legalistic" side. But all in all, it's an excellent primer on the Christian life.
  3. Lectures on the Church of God, by William Kelly. This is the best summary of "brethren" ecclesiology I have read. An alternate would be S. Ridout's The Church and Its Order, According to Scripture. Both of these books are unashamedly "exclusive"; "open" brethren might find them a little "extreme". But I strongly recommend you read at least one of them, if you want to read "brethren".
  4. Discipline in the School of God, by J. B. Stoney. This is one of the "brethren" classics: if you have access to Bible Treasury, you actually have access to this book: it was originally published as a series of articles in Bible Treasury. Discipline is a survey of Bible characters, with an emphasis on God's work in their lives. This book is a subjective classic, and is probably the second-best christian book I have ever read.
  5. The Coming Prince, by Sir Robert Anderson. Excellent treatment of Daniel 9: might be the best Dispensationalist treatment of the passage. This is a Dispensationalist classic, written by an "open brethren" teacher.
  6. The Hopes of the Church of God, by J. N. Darby. This is actually in Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2. These lectures might be considered the start of Dispensationalism. Not really; but they are a series of lectures Darby gave in Geneva in 1840. These lectures are really excellent, and I would suggest you really need to read them, if you want to read "brethren" stuff. One lecture in the set: "The Progress of Evil on the Earth" is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand Darby's teaching on Ruin in the Church. These lectures have been published as a stand-alone volume a couple times.
  7. The Closing Ministry of J. Pellatt, Vols. 1 & 2: confusingly published in a single volume. The only real problem I have with this book is, the second half contains a lot of "Readings". I like sitting in Bible Readings, but really hate reading transcripts from them. The transcripts can be interesting, but they're a terrible read. J. Pellatt's ministry is excellent "heart ministry": it really touches your heart and lifts it to God. It's available online at My Brethren, but I find their tendency to convert prose into bullet points makes it hard to read anything in its entirety.

Now, you might have trouble actually finding all those books. In fact, you will certainly not be able to find them all in one place. But they're worth the trouble to dig up, if you're so inclined.

So if anyone actually does read this blog, I would be interested in hearing a recommended reading list from someone else...

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Great House

19 Yet the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, The Lord knows those that are his; and, Let every one who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity. 20 But in a great house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also wooden and earthen; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. 21 If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them , he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work. 22 But youthful lusts flee, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.(2 Timothy 2:19--22, Darby)

These verses are almost the Constitution of "exclusive brethren". I've examined these verses for years, and think there are some comments that really need to be made. To this end, I'd like to comment briefly on them. This is not meant as an exposition, or an examination of these verses. This is just a few thoughts I've mulled over for the last few years.

It's clear that 2 Timothy is a book about "last days". Consider 2 Timothy 3:1 "But this know, that in the last days difficult times shall be there;" (Darby). It's a book to prepare Timothy (but us too) for the "last days", days which will be difficult, and dangerous. We know from John's epistles that the last days are already here: we don't need to look around and see whether the description fits: we know when we are because we have the record of Scripture to it.

But in the last days, the difficult times, things have changed. We're no longer in the heady, exciting times of Acts 2. We're no longer seeing miraculous growth, or incredible signs. We're now living in the days of Jude, where "certain men have got in unnoticed, they who of old were marked out beforehand to this sentence, ungodly persons , turning the grace of our God into dissoluteness, and denying our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ." (Jude 4, Darby). We live in the days where the Church has fallen into corruption; where we have seen prophecy acted out: the seed has grown into a great tree, and all the birds of Heaven have nested in it. The tares have been sown, and we are waiting for the harvest to have them separated from the wheat.

But we've not been left orphans. While the days are certainly difficult, the Lord knew and foretold them. We're seeing nothing He wasn't prepared for.

v. 19 The Lord knows who are His. This is the first, and arguably most important, part of "the seal". This forms the foundation for everything else: we are not left here to duke it out alone. The Lord knows those who are His. This becomes very important in the last days, as they are characterized by fragmentation. In Acts 2, it was plain to everyone who was the Lord's: the external fellowship was identical to the One Body. But now we have two problems: first, the external fellowship is a mingled company: "certain men have got in unnoticed" (Jude 4). There are false professors in the institutional church. Second, there are true believers scattered and isolated from the external fellowship. It was never God's intention to have a visible Church which was distinct from the One Body, but that's the state of things in the Last Days.

But our security and our hope lies in this: the Lord knows who are His. He hasn't forgotten one of us. Not a single believer is out there that the Lord has lost sight of. Conversely, not a single false professor has fooled Him. We believers really can't tell who's a false professor and who's a true believer. We are not in a position to make that call: we can watch someone and speak to them, and try to make a determination; but in the end, we can be fooled: God cannot.

There is a certain foolishness to our trying too hard to determine "Who's in" and "Who's out".

v. 19 Let every one who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity. There is a second part of the seal: a personal responsbility to "withdraw from iniquity". This is not a responsibility that we lay on one another: it's a responsibility we bring one ourselves when we "[name] the name of the Lord".

There is certainly a sense where we can look at someone who "names the name of the Lord" and say "have you withdrawn from iniquity?". But it's much more pertinent that we look at ourselves and say "have I withdrawn from iniquity?"

"Exclusives" have gotten a wrong focus on this, I think. We've made the term "withdraw from iniquity" into a very narrow sort of instruction. We take that to mean that someone needs to "separate" from anything we disapprove of, if they want any part with us. That's not entirely unfounded: there is certainly a sense where we can become partakers of another person's sins. Associations can have a huge affect on us.

But there's a much greater sense where we need to call a spade a spade (so to speak) and judge iniquity within ourselves. It's very convenient to use a verse like this to condemn everything we don't like "out there", but there's a huge class of iniquities "in here": pride, arrogance, dishonesty, lust. These are very real sins and iniquities that live in our own hearts. And as much as we like a verse like this to condemn iniquity in others, it's primarily a verse to us who claim to be "gathering to the Lord's name": Have we withdrawn from iniquity?

"Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1). "But do not after their works, for they say and do not, 4 but bind burdens heavy and hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of men, but will not move them with their finger." (Matthew 23:3 & 4). We ought to pay close attention to these words of the Lord; partly because in our "assembly circles", there is a tendency to Pharisaism. One such tendency is to demand others to "depart from iniquity", while not judging ourselves. Or to put it another way, we redefine "iniquity" to describe only the things we are sure others do, but we don't. I have frequently said "When we do it, it's weakness; when they do it, it's sin". This is hypocrisy.

v. 20 But in a great house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also wooden and earthen; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. There has been a lot written about this: the House of God has become a "great house". The characterization of a "great house" is, a mixture of vessels: honourable and dishonourable in the same house. Much has been written about what was once the "house of God" now being a "great house", but I think the essential idea is this: where there was once a sort of purity, a singleness of heart and desire in the Church, there is now a tremendous range. Believers and unbelievers alike are in the house of God.

Let me pause a moment and clarify that last point. "Brethren" have developed an interesting theology in the last 100 years or so, where they are now "the house of God", and everyone else is the "great house". I see no basis for this idea in Scripture. I see nothing in Scripture to indicate that a group of believers (no matter how godly) can separate from the corruption in the church and thus return to a pristine state. It's just not there. There is a sense of departing from iniquity (as v. 19 says), but there is no sense in which we can do God's house-cleaning for Him. Yes, there is the need for us to separate from evil where we know of it: there is the need to "withdraw from iniquity", which may require a separation from others in the house of God. But there is nothing in Scripture to justify the idea that we can thus cease to be the "great house" and once again be the "house of God" in simplicity. If we accept that the "great house" describes the church (and it does), then we must accept that the house of God has become a "great house". We can't fix that, not even in a tiny way by gathering only with a few others.

But to return to the point of the verse: the house of God is now a great house. We now have both vessels to honour and some to dishonour.

v. 21 If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them , he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work. Darby's translation inserts the phrase "in separating himself from them", so it should really read: "If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work." The translator's notes in the Darby Translation clarify this addition: it's not entirely unfounded, but the additional phrase is actually an insertion, and needs to be recognized as such.

Here again is the call to separation. Earlier, there was separation from iniquity (v. 19), now there is a separation from "vessels of dishonour". Notice this is a sort of parallel of 1 Corinthians 5, "But now I have written to you, if any one called brother be fornicator, or avaricious, or idolater, or abusive, or a drunkard, or rapacious, not to mix with him ; with such a one not even to eat" (1 Corinthians 5:11, Darby Translation). But there are some differences: in 1 Corinthians, there was to be separation from one who is "called a brother" who is in sin. It presupposes he is actually a Christian, or at least the separation is due to his professing to be so. But here in 1 Timothy, no such assumption is made. The "vessel of dishonour" might indeed be a brother, or perhaps not, perhaps he is a false professor, or perhaps not a professor at all; but he is in the great house, and should be separated from.

Again, 1 Corithians declares we are not to separate from sinners in the world. Worldlings live as they wish, it is their world, and we are not called to separate from them per se. But there is a separation from one in the house who is a vessel to dishonour.

The other difference to notice is this: in 1 Corinthians, the evildoer is expelled from the assembly; in 2 Timothy, the separation is individual. I have no question that any church, no matter how corrupt, is called to act according to 1 Corinthians and expel the unrepentant. But we are in the last days: that is simply not being done. Is the individual then to continue in that church, and just accept the assembly decision? 2 Timothy introduces to right of the individual to act in separation.

Is this a formal separation? I don't know. I hate to admit it, but I honestly don't know.

In the case where a church refuses to judge sin and act accordingly, I would say the individual has no choice but to separate from it as a group. That is pretty much formal separation.

But in the case where there is a "mixed multitude" in a church, I don't know how formal the separation is to be. There is to be some, obviously; but I can't tell to what degree that is to be carried.

v. 22 But youthful lusts flee. There is a real danger in "youthful lusts". There is a time to stand and fight, but there is a time to flee.

I suppose the term "youthful lusts" brings to mind sexual sins; but I think the term is broader than that: the things a youth may lust for range from power to money to sexual gratification, and covers all manner of things in between. To limit this to sexual lust is certainly short-sighted.

v. 22 and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace So it's not all negative, there is a positive command. Not only are we to separate from iniquity (v. 19), lusts (v. 22), and even people (v. 21); we are to pursue these four things: righteousness, faith, love, and peace.

There is a sense where the flesh can tolerate separating from people or things, because that makes it feel important: religious flesh loves to condemn others and elevate self. Separation from evil is frequently nothing more than arrogance, or propping up of one's own flesh. But pursuit of righteousness, faith, love, and peace is a humbling thing. Arrogance is no help: pointing fingers at others who don't make the cut is no help. It requires humility.

v. 22 with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart. Sadly, this phrase has been mis-used over the years. "Brethren" have used it as an excuse to exclude others. Is it an exclusive statement? Well, there is an element of the exclusive in there: it doesn't say you should pursue with whomever we like: it specifically describes those with whom we should pursue. We are to pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.

So we're not called to walk alone.

We're not called to walk with the people we like, nor even the people we approve of. We're called to walk with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart. I have come to the honest opinion, after mulling this over for years, that "brethren" have utterly failed in obeying this command. To the extent that we knowingly refuse to fellowship with anyone who call[s] upon the Lord out of a pure heart, we have turned our back on this injunction.

I once sat in a Bible Reading where a "leading brother" explained that "A pure heart is an undivided heart", so anyone who tries to fellowship with both our assembly and someone else doesn't have a pure heart... Religious flesh loves to pervert the word of God for its own benefit. It's abundantly clear that "A pure heart is an undivided heart" is sophistry at best, dishonesty at worst. It's equivocation, using the English term "pure" to mean "unmingled". The problem is, the Greek word translated here doesn't mean "unmingled", it's a moral word. It means "clean".

If "pure" were to be translated "undivided", then we would have a contradiction. On the one hand, the test of fellowship would be whether someone is willing to fellowship in only one place. On the other hand, it is therefore impossible to fellowship with all those who fellowship exclusively elsewhere. Let me elucidate: if "pure heart" really means "undivided heart", then the Roman Catholic who refuses to fellowship with anyone not Roman Catholic certainly has a pure heart. But then by definition, it is impossible for me to fellowship with him or her, as I am not Roman Catholic!

Further, if a "pure heart" is an "undivided heart", then we have to conclude that the true test of fellowship is loyalty, not moral purity or integrity. While that is fine if you want to form a cult, it's hardly in keeping with the teaching of the New Testament. Especially since this passage itself declares we are to withdraw from iniquity.

The only reasonable explanation is, the "pure heart" is the "clean heart". It's describing those who call on the name of the Lord in sincerity, not looking for a license for sin, not looking for our own glory; but calling on the name of the Lord out of the need that comes of being His child in "difficult days".

We're to walk with the children of God who are walking uprightly, calling on the Lord's name.