Month: May 2014

A Love That’s God

In Christian contexts, we hear that word a lot.  Love.  It’s everywhere in Scripture from the key teaching in Leviticus 19:18 (reiterated by the Lord Jesus in the Gospels) to God’s description of Himself as “love” in 1 John 4:8.  These are important, foundational teachings to the Christian faith and without them we would not be who we are.  We wouldn’t be Jesus people.  We wouldn’t be Bible people.  This is a doctrine that is integral to the fabric of our faith.

However, the problem comes when that’s the only doctrine of our “faith.”  Allowing the doctrines of sovereignty, holiness, righteousness, justice, and wrath to fall by the wayside unquestionably changes the conversation.  This “faith” is no longer Christianity.  This “faith”, to borrow a term from Christian Smith, is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the basic tenets of which are:

  1. A god exists who created the world and watches over everyone.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, fair, and loving to each other.
  3. The goal of life is to be good to other people, be happy, and feel good about yourself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved except when needed to resolve a problem.

This is the primary “religion” of the people in the United States of America.  This is the “god” in which many of us trust.  This is the “god” that many of us believe our one nation is under.  This god is somewhere out there and isn’t coming home for a while and has left a note for the siblings to play nice and when you do you’ll get a warm feeling inside which means you’re a good, loving person.  This is a false religion preaching a false gospel that many have assumed is historic, orthodox, Biblical Christianity.  And for this we need to repent.

I could end this post here, hopeful that those who have elevated God’s love above all his other attributes would realize their error and seek forgiveness.

But then Mr. Mainline Love-Machine sputters in. “But but but but but but but…that’s not what I’m saying.  I’m not saying that God isn’t sovereign or holy or righteous or just,” he retorts, conveniently leaving one out.  “It’s just that the Bible says, ‘God is love.’  Everything else must flow out of his love, so whatever is loving, that’s what God does.”

And here we have arrived squarely at the issue at hand.  What is love?  Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me…no more.

I agree with the Mr. Machine.  Whatever is loving is what God does.  The natural deduction would be, then, “If God did it, it must be loving.”  This is where Mr. Machine and I would disagree.  You see, we both open the text of Scripture and see God doing all kinds of crazy things.  My sentiment would be what was stated above.  “Whatever is loving is what God does and if God did it, it must be loving,” meaning that I view God’s destruction of the Egyptians, Canaanites, and all the other -ites as loving in the same way that His rescue of the Israelites from captivity and ready defense of the widow, orphan, and sojourner was loving as well.  I think that Mr. Machine and I would deviate at this point.  I have an inkling he would call majority of what God did in the text of Scripture unloving, if you can get him to even admit that God actually did them and they weren’t “just truth-filled stories.”  The judge of love is no longer God, but our own human fancies.

The fundamental difference is that I look at the text of Scripture where God calls himself “love” and then allow Him to judge and define what love looks like throughout the very same text of Scripture.  Mr. Machine looks at the text of Scripture where God calls himself “love” and rushes to find God in everything that he calls loving.  The breakdown is that, by his definition, Mr. Machine not worshiping a God that’s love.  He’s worshiping a Love that’s god.  You see, when we get to define what love is and demand God and everyone else adhere, our definition has just excluded the Prophets, the Apostles, Jesus, and God Himself.

When we deify Love, or any other attribute of God for that matter, we always (for we must) redefine it and make it into something it never was intended to be.  Love no longer can mean anger, wrath, or justice (an inconsistency which I’ve written about here).  It must mean something else.  And once we stand proudly beside our newly defined “god,” we demand that the one true God meet our own twisted, prideful, fallen, sinful, human qualifications of Love.  And when He doesn’t, He is wrong.  “God wouldn’t say that.  God wouldn’t do that.  God wouldn’t require that.  God wouldn’t prohibit that.  That’s not very loving.”  (*New Definition of Love* Read: That’s not very nice.)

This redefinition problem extends far beyond our deification of Love.  One more example.

We have redefined, and arguably inverted, the definitions of arrogance and humility.  I’m certain that whether in public or private, someone somewhere will think me arrogant for blogging in the way that I do, but maybe a hypothetical situation would be easier.

Situation 1: Pastor Evangelly-goo gets up in front of his congregation and spends the entire 20 minute sermon flattering and cajoling and talking about himself, his story, and his experience.  People, then, walk away and say to themselves, “What a humble, transparent pastor we have.”  Why?  “Because he talked about himself the whole time.”

Situation 2: Pastor John (the Baptist, Chrysostom, Knox, Calvin, Flavel, Owen, Piper, MacArthur…take your pick) gets up in front of his congregation and says, “Thus saith the Lord Almighty, the Lord of Hosts…” and then proclaims the Word of God, a message that would have been true if he, the pastor, had never been born because it comes right out of the text of Scripture.  People, then, walk away and say to say to themselves, “What an arrogant man.”  Why?  “Because he didn’t talk about himself at all.  All he did was talk about God and the authority of the Bible.”

Here’s where the redefinition comes in.  We live in a time when to speak a true word based on what God said is defined as arrogance while to hem and haw and equivocate and offer a shoulder shrug making your own doubts, skepticism, and questions the center of the cosmos is defined as humility.

We live in a time when speaking the truth about God’s detest for, restrictions on, and punishment of sin is defined as unloving while calling the very things God did in the text of Scripture unloving and simultaneously demanding He rise to our new definition of Love is defined, somehow, as loving.

There’s only one word that can be said for people like us.  It’s no wonder it was Jesus’ first public message in the Gospel accounts (Mt. 4:17; Mk. 1:15) and the first sermon of the Church of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:37-38).

Repent.

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On Controversy

With all the kerfuffles going on around the internet (TGC this, Multnomah Publishers that), I wanted to draw your attention to a few helpful articles.

The first comes from my friends over at West Virginia for the Gospel.  Josiah Batten writes brilliantly about essential things, important things, and peripheral things.  You can read it here.

The second is a letter written by John Newton, an evangelical Anglican cleric during the 1700’s.  During that time there was a minister who was about to write an article criticizing a fellow minister for his lack of orthodoxy.  Instead, he wrote to John Newton of his intention. Read Newton’s response.

Dear Sir,

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armor, that you need not complain, as David did of Saul’s, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the Word of God. I take it for granted that you will not expect any apology for my freedom, and therefore I shall not offer one. For method’s sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.

As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.

If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.

But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defense of the gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.

Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose. “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.” If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their principles, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.

By printing, you will appeal to the public; where your readers may be ranged under three divisions: First, such as differ from you in principle. Concerning these I may refer you to what I have already said. Though you have your eye upon one person chiefly, there are many like-minded with him; and the same reasoning will hold, whether as to one or to a million.

There will be likewise many who pay too little regard to religion, to have any settled system of their own, and yet are preengaged in favor of those sentiments which are at least repugnant to the good opinion men naturally have of themselves. These are very incompetent judges of doctrine; but they can form a tolerable judgment of a writer’s spirit. They know that meekness, humility, and love are the characteristics of a Christian temper; and though they affect to treat the doctrines of grace as mere notions and speculations, which, supposing they adopted them, would have no salutary influence upon their conduct; yet from us, who profess these principles, they always expect such dispositions as correspond with the precepts of the gospel. They are quick-sighted to discern when we deviate from such a spirit, and avail themselves of it to justify their contempt of our arguments. The scriptural maxim, that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God,” is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. The weapons of our warfare, and which alone are powerful to break down the strongholds of error, are not carnal, but spiritual; arguments fairly drawn from Scripture and experience, and enforced by such a mild address, as may persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls, and contend only for the truth’s sake; if we can satisfy them that we act upon these motives, our point is half gained; they will be more disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions.

You will have a third class of readers, who, being of your own sentiments, will readily approve of what you advance, and may be further established and confirmed in their views of the Scripture doctrines, by a clear and masterly elucidation of your subject. You may be instrumental to their edification if the law of kindness as well as of truth regulates your pen, otherwise you may do them harm. There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.

I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from and are nourished by the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse were always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind. I think I have known some Arminians, that is, persons who for want of a clearer light, have been afraid of receiving the doctrines of free grace, who yet have given evidence that their hearts were in a degree humbled before the Lord.

And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility, that they are willing in words to debase the creature and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.

This leads me, in the last place, to consider your own concern in your present undertaking. It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own day, when errors abound on all sides and every truth of the gospel is either directly denied or grossly misrepresented.

And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?

Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views; and though you set out in defense of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God.

Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.” This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, “not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called.” The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savor and efficacy of our labors.

If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.


Excerpt from The Works of John Newton, Letter XIX “On Controversy.”

The Next Chapter

Outside of the Lord Jesus, my favorite character in the text of Scripture is the Apostle Paul.  I love reading his writings and teaching them to my students.  He conveys so many incredible, life-changing applications that allow the  concepts of Jesus to unfold like a flower.  The one application that gets to me almost every time I read or study it is his teaching on joy in the midst of suffering coupled with contentment.

Paul writes the letter to the Philippian Church and constantly reminds them to rejoice in the midst of their suffering like Jesus, Timothy, and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2).  He reaches his dramatic conclusion in Chapter 4 when he reveals, what he calls, the “secret” to having joy in the midst of any and every circumstance.  Contentment.

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
(Philippians 4:11-13)

The secret for Paul is contentment and he says that because he has understood this secret, he can face any circumstance as long as God gives him the strength.  The strength to what?  To be content.

This always sparks thousands of questions in my mind, but the primary one being, “Is this something I can say about myself?”  Could I be content in any and every situation?  Whether I have a lot or don’t?  When I’m full and when I’m hungry?  Could I be content in those circumstances?

It seems to me that the end of spring and the beginning of summer is a restless time.  Maybe it’s because I work in a high school and everyone is just buzzing about getting out of these four walls for a few months.  All of that paired with the celebration of the Senior Class as we send them away to college… there’s a sort of finality to it.  And I’m sure every high school has the unwritten “countdown tradition.”  15 more days.  14 more days.  13 more days.  Wishing them all away and wanting more than anything to be somewhere we aren’t.  If you are long past those schooling days, maybe it’s not the beginning of the summer that causes you to wish your days away, but it’s the longing we each have to know what’s in the next chapter of our lives.  What job will we have next?  Where will we live next?

It seems this is a lesson we quickly forget.  “[F]or I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” The Apostle Paul’s contentedness lesson arises again.  He even told the Athenian philosophers that God has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [our] dwelling place,” (Acts 17:26).  As Paul points out so masterfully in Philippians, Christ is our example.  Often times we fail to be content in the here and now and we only embrace the next chapter with a content spirit when it’s good or positive or a promotion or a better salary or more of what we want, but even then, our contentment is fleeting.  But could we who claim to follow Christ like Him (Heb. 12:2) embrace the next chapter with a content spirit even when it’s laced with sorrow and heartache and pain and monotony and sickness and death?  Would our contentment lead to joy in that circumstance?  Could I be content with the book of my life that God is writing if the next chapter is written in such a way that I die of cancer before I’m 30?  If the next chapter means that members of my family are taken from me?  If the next chapter means that I don’t get to escape the metaphorical or, in Paul’s case, quite literal prison I’m in?

May your prayer and mine echo the words of the Apostle Paul.

I can face all things because Christ gives me the strength to be content.