Monday, February 23, 2009

The Newest News.

A few of my weblog-writing friends have told me of stat trackers and counters and other ways to know people actually read their writing. I don't have any of those features. Every time I write a post, I assume that only ten or so friends and family will take the time to read all of those words. I think I want to continue feeling surprise when anyone else writes a comment or email regarding my essays. All that to say, I have no idea how many people might be upset with what I say next.

For the first time in the not-quite-year-long history of 'Am-ha'aretz Press, I'm only going to have posted one essay in a month. I don't count this extended disclaimer as a post. It's more of an explanation for what's to come. Maybe it's an apology, but I don't feel sorry. Here's what's going on, Press readers...

I base most of my posts on what I've recently studied or what God has taught me during times of prayer. About five weeks ago, I began to approach some big questions about God's soveriegnty, the nature of my relationship with Him, and how these things affected my work in His kingdom. In my arrogance (there you go, I admitted it), I didn't think this new study would be too much trouble. Instead, it shook out all of my brain's drawers and ripped everything out of my soul's closet then demanded I put it back in order. What I mean to say is, I've had to rethink just about everything in the past five weeks.

Here's a taste of what I've had to endure: Faith is both believing and living according to God's word and it's impossible to please God outside of faith. Sin, as far as I know, is living according to anything apart from God's word. Nothing in my life can be autonomous because that would mean I've tried to take control of something from God or that God had given away control. Autonomy and faith are absolutely exclusive. If this is true, then is it right to believe or operate as if I have autonomous control over my decisions?

Exactly. That's the kind of thing I've had to deal with.

In a tone some people reserve for breaking bad news to loved ones, I told my mom last week, "I think I'm a five-point Calvinist." I felt like I was telling her that I had a heroin addiction or that I'd simultaneously impregnated a hooker while catching a viscous VD. For a guy that both attended and disliked Calvin College, this was a hard admission. Maybe that's not as bad as the hooker/VD thing. I guess it's more like realizing that I actually enjoy Ryan Adams and Wilco. Which I don't. But saying that aloud in Nashville would make me a marked man. I'm just trying to express the severity of what I've had to admit. Ugh.

Until I put those drawers back in the dresser and rearrange my closet, I might not be able to put any of my essays up here. I'll keep writing them. That's for sure. And when I can explain why I think these things are true, I'll let all of you read them.

The other reason I don't want to post these essays yet has to do with the sensitivity of any readers who haven't considered the questions I've wrestled with. I told one of my close friends about this over a pint one night. He and I discussed the heart of God and His perfect mercy in relation to His perfect justice. That's the kind of thing I prefer to discuss while imbibing. At the end of our conversation, I told him, "If God leads me to understand this is true, then I'm sure I'll have to write both about God's sovereignty and His heartbreak." In The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer spoke of "tearing the roof off" of a person's system of belief. One can't destroy this without offering the person some help to rebuild.

So I'll keep putting my room back together, so to speak, and nailing new shingles on my own roof. I hope to talk to you all about it next month.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Working Faith

Even though I write about my life as a Christian, I spent a good deal of my life detesting books listed under “Christian Living”. The books I would take off of my dad’s shelf sometimes had phrases like “living by faith” or “taking steps of faith” or “developing faith”. There are certain phrases that I had heard enough Bible teachers say without ever explaining what they meant, eventually my mind would pass over the topic whenever I encountered it. So I could never explain “faith” whenever my friends outside of the church ever asked me about my faith. The word had meaning the same way that “glory” has meaning in some churches. They know it means something, and that it has to do with God, but they stutter whenever you ask them to define their terms.

I’ve begun to see the importance of defining terms. I recently told a story about a man challenging me on how I used the words “belief” and “faith” interchangeably. It took me months before I could understand the difference. I felt a certain satisfaction in finally understanding a word that I had used hundreds of thousands of times in ignorance while unknowingly (or secretly) hoping that listeners would understand.

Think about this in your own life. How many times have people asked you to explain or define faith and you find your mouth hanging open absolutely puzzled? And how about this brain bender: if we’re saved by grace and not by works, then why does the Bible say that faith without works is dead? Like a college essay question, I used to BS my way through the whole thing.

As I write this, I am sitting in the lower level of the library at Belmont University. They’ve hidden all of the theology, religion, and philosophy books in the depths of the building behind inconspicuous doors marked “Not An Exit”. Not many of my friends on campus are even aware of this place, which means it’s really quiet. I’ve been coming here nearly every day since last week to study and write. But today, for some reason, I’m unable to use my usual online study guides. I think maybe the shadowy lords of Belmont Wi-Fi have figured out that I’m not a paying student. All of this to say that I will be using the Complete Jewish Bible for my scripture references. For the sake of the reader, though, I’ll use the glossary to translate names and words that might not be familiar. I just made you read this whole paragraph to make that one point. Now, moving on…

Here are a few things Paul states in Romans 10. In verses 9 and 11, he says, “that if you acknowledge publicly with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and trust in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be delivered.” Then, “For the passage quoted says that everyone who rests his trust on him will not be humiliated (referring to Isaiah 28:16).” If you read this in other translations, note how the Hebrew translation uses the word “trust” for “faith”. Many people have heard what Paul says a few verses later how faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

Hebrews 11:6 says, “without trusting, it is impossible to be well pleasing to God, because whoever approaches him must trust that he does exist and that he becomes a Rewarder of those who seek him out.” To restate my definition of terms, “belief” is mentally ascribing yourself to something. My belief rests on the truth that I find in the Bible. I demonstrate this when I tell people that the Bible is absolutely true. “Faith” is acting upon the truth to which I have mentally and verbally given myself. This is why the Bible can say, “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” and that a public acknowledgement of Jesus as the risen Lord delivers us.

But “faith” is something else. Faith takes the truth of the Bible and stirs a real change in our day-to-day lives. That means we have to act as if we really believe ourselves when we say that the whole Bible is true. I mean, to say we believe it and live as if we don’t places us in a frustrating situation. That’s why James says faith without works is dead. Without evidence of some change by the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, a person who claims belief in the Bible speaks empty words.

So if living by faith, as a Christian, means living in moment-to-moment reality trusting that the whole Bible is true today, this presents a question of responsibility to believers. Hebrews 11:6 made it clear that it is impossible to please God outside of faith. If faith means that we have to base our actions on what we read in the Bible (Romans 10:17 again), then doesn’t that mean it would be sin for us to read something in the scripture and not apply that to our everyday lives? If I make a decision about a situation on my own wisdom apart from the Bible, am I not basically saying that I don’t need God to figure it out? Isn’t that ethically living outside of faith? Isn’t that sin?

Now what if we could depend on the Bible as truth, that it does apply in reality today? Let’s look at a few verses. Matthew 10:1, “Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority to drive out unclean spirits and to heal every kind of disease and weakness.” And what about the redemptive work of salvation? Because Jesus came to earth, lived, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, those who trust in this have great promises. Not only will their sins be forgiven, but according to Isaiah 53:5 and Psalm 103:3 says that salvation brings physical healing. James 5:14-15 says, “Is someone among you ill? He should call for the elders of the congregation. They will pray for him and rub olive oil on him in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered with trust will heal the one who is ill – the Lord will restore his health; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Notice also how salvation refers to sin and sickness each time. That happens a lot in the Bible. I think it’s safe to say that salvation and healing are not two separate things.

Beyond healing miracles, what about simply hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit? Isaiah 30:21 says, “With your ears you will hear a word from behind you: ‘This is the way; stay on it, whether you go to the right or the left.’” John 16:13, “However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own initiative but will say only what he hears. He will also announce to you the events of the future.” That last part refers to prophecy. Paul talks at length about this and other gifts of the spirit in 1 Corinthians 12-14. And for you dispensationalists out there, was Paul writing about this for the benefit of the exclusively gifted apostles, or to a church of former pagans that needed to understand a reality that God had shown of himself?

Healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, prophesying, speaking in languages unknown to the speaker, a personal and verbal (even if unspoken) relationship with the Holy Spirit. I mean, even going out preaching the gospel, baptizing people, and discipling them. The Bible instructs people to do that stuff. If you say that you believe the whole Bible, are you willing to read it and trust that God will enable you to do it? Remember that only God makes us able to live by faith. But when we resist Him, what does that say about our belief in the Bible? I won’t demand that you answer for this, but I can tell you that one day you will have to give an answer, just like I will have to give an answer.

I’ll leave you with this, though, in hopes that you won’t be all bummed out at the end. There’s a reason I quoted Romans 10:11. If you do put your trust in God and live it, you won’t be humiliated. Well, that doesn’t guarantee you won’t be embarrassed sometimes. But God has stated the truth of the Bible and called us to live accordingly so that He will be glorified. Believers are a part of His plan to reveal Himself to the world because we demonstrate the reality of who He is in our lives. That’s the way He set it up. So when we live based on our trust in the Bible, we get to be a part of what He’s already going to do.