Sunday, March 28, 2010

Give me that old-time religion

Be my imitators, even as *I* also am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

Remember your leaders who have spoken to you the word of God; and considering the issue of their conversation, imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)

Beloved, using all diligence to write to you of our common salvation, I have been obliged to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

I've been thinking a lot about Paul's faith for the last 8 months or so. We are told to imitate him, as he imitated Christ. I suppose there is an implicit caveat there: we need to imitate him as he imitated Christ. I can think of at least two places in Acts where Paul was admittedly wrong (there are doubtless others), that's not what he is telling us to imitate. And indeed, Hebrews tells us to follow the faith (not the follies, the faith) of those who spoke to us the word of God. So I suppose this is a wider question than just Paul; but we have the most detailed record of Paul, so we'll stick with that for now.

In view of my ranting about "the whole counsel of God" earlier, perhaps Acts 20 is a good place to start. Paul told the overseers in Ephesus, "I have not shrunk from announcing to you all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). He spent three years in Ephesus, and he spent them well. He didn't stick to some favourite doctrines or camp out in a favourite passage of Scripture, he announced to them "all the counsel of God."

On the one hand, he was strongly individualistic. He told the Galatians, "do I now seek to satisfy men or God? or do I seek to please men? If I were yet pleasing men, I were not Christ’s bondman." (Gal. 1:10). And he told the Romans, "Who art *thou* that judgest the servant of another? to his own master he stands or falls. And he shall be made to stand; for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4). But on the other hand, he was deeply and strongly committed to the collective testimony of the assembly: "none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself" (Romans 14:7). He told the Thessalonians, "you are our glory and joy". He apparently wasn't content with a faith that was just his: there needed to be an expression of it in others too. Not merely as fellow-individuals, but as the Body of Christ. There was the individual, there was also the personal.

This is one of those "whole counsel of God" things. Getting the collective right doesn't meant the individual doesn't matter. Being correct about the individual doesn't give us a pass on the collective.

He taught the Christians about prophecy, soteriology, the corporate testimony and individual walk. He knew the Law and wasn't afraid to use it. But he was centered: " [b]ut far be it from me to boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14). His faith was centered in a Person, "[f]or I did not judge it well to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and *him* crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Paul gave the clearest exposition of the gospel of the grace of God we have (Romans 1--5). He declared "him who justifies the ungodly" (Romans 4:5) and welcomed Jews and Gentiles alike to come for the completely free justification in Christ, "since indeed it is one God who shall justify the circumcision on the principle of faith, and uncircumcision by faith" (Romans 3:30). He told us, "in [Christ] every one that believes is justified" (Acts 13:39). But he taught there's a cost too, "all indeed who desire to live piously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12). And he was careful to point out that justification isn't the end of the story:

1 *I*, the prisoner in the Lord, exhort you therefore to walk worthy of the calling wherewith ye have been called,
2* with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love;
3* using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace.
(Ephesians 4:1--3)

So I've asked myself over and over again... do I imitate Paul as he imitated Christ? do I have the faith once delivered to the saints?

Of course there are all sorts of people who are quick to "help" lay out just what that is. I mean, they've got some formula for just what constitutes the faith once delivered. I think most of those fall away if we really examine them.

I wrote a couple years ago:

the hardest part of obeying the Scripture is to trust that it's sufficient. It's one thing to acknowledge it's inerrant or authoritative; it's quite another to acknowledge its sufficiency. I think it strange how frequently we trust in creeds, dogmas, catechisms, theologies, doctrines, and commentaries when we have the Bible. I admit it's not the easiest book to understand, and it can take some time to compare Scripture with Scripture to figure out how a passage applies, or what it means. But really, if God has spoken, it's worth the time and effort to listen.

I've been trying for the last three or four years to judge all things by Scripture. I'm the first to admit I'm doing a horrible job of walking it out. It doesn't take long talking to me to see a whole lot of faults. And it might surprise people who actually know me to realize they probably don't see me at my worst. And the flesh in us is such that even the effort to judge all things by the Word of God is an occasion for arrogance.

But I can't see that there is another option. If God hasn't spoken, nothing matters. If He has, nothing else matters. I think this is really the bottom line. It's possible to wrest the Scriptures to our own destruction, but it requires effort: "wrest" is an active verb. On the other hand, the Scripture is able to make us wise to salvation.

"[A]ll who are in Asia, of whom is Phygellus and Hermogenes, have turned away from me" (2 Timothy 1:15). I'm no Paul, but it looks like the path is a lonely one. I'm reminded of the Lord Jesus' words: "Woe, when all men speak well of you, for after this manner did their fathers to the false prophets" (Luke 6:26).

And that brings me to the question I have asked time and again for the last year. If I really held the faith once delivered to the saints, would I be welcome in any church? If I were to walk like the Apostles walked (and that's a big "if"), would any church want me there Sunday morning?


EPIMENOS said...

What were the 2 instances of Paul being "wrong"?

clumsy ox said...

The first is Acts 23:1--5. Paul railed against the high priest. When they struck him, he acknowledged he was in the wrong.

The second is his appeal to Caesar in Acts 24. I realize I'm in a minority here, but I've examined this one time and again, and I keep concluding that he should have left well enough alone. In Acts 26:32, Agrippa tells Festus that Paul ought to have been released, except he had appealed to Caesar.

My point, of course, is that the command to "follow me" was not unqualified. He said "as I follow Christ".