Sunday, August 30, 2009

Encouraging Endurance - Or, avoiding Ishmaels.

A pastor I know in Michigan once told me that he sat in the front row of his own sermons. My weblog’s description says that I write about what God teaches me through prayer. Very often, I feel like I’m exposing my own life in Jesus rather than teaching others how to live. For example, Ribs, Patience, and Trust. So I’m going to get a little personal here.

I believe that God has made several promises for my life. I’ve written all of them down and regularly read through them as I pray. He has fulfilled some of them and this encourages me to keep asking for the others. Even so, I have yet to see the other promises fulfilled. Sometimes, as I wait, I become frustrated and even despair. “Will these ever happen?” When I talk about it with other believers, I feel silly because I know in my heart God is faithful. The knowledge of God’s faithfulness, though, doesn’t necessarily make me feel better.

Certainly, you all have experienced this feeling. It’s easy to forget we serve an infinite God who lives outside of time, who created time and has sovereign control over it. Spiritually, we can grow weary in trusting and waiting. In that weariness, I have looked for distractions. Then the distractions become idols as I seek comfort from the frustration. God told me those promises to give me hope for things to come and I believe this is why the writer of Hebrews encouraged believers to endure in their waiting. Hebrews 10:36, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” (NASB)

In The CJB (Complete Jewish Bible) translation, the word “trust” substitutes for the word “faith”. Trust implies that a person’s life demonstrates their belief in the truth. They have a confidence in what they know. Hebrews 11:1 describes, “Trusting is being confident of what we hope for, convinced about things we do not see.” The following verses describe how different men in the Old Testament trusted God’s promises and were called righteous. This lifestyle is so important, the writer says in verse 6, “And 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 to those who seek him out.”

Of all the people mentioned in this passage, I like the one about Abraham best. Hebrews 11:11, “By trusting, he received potency to father a child, even when he was past the age for it, as was Sarah herself; because he regarded the One who had made the promise as trustworthy.” One could read this verse and think, “Yeah, Abraham. He must have really trusted God with the promise of a son.” But even Abraham and Sarah got tired of waiting at one point. In Genesis 16, Sarah pimps her Egyptian slave-girl out to her husband so they can have a child somehow, anyhow. Abraham doesn’t seem to put up much of a fight, which I find interesting.

So he has sex with his wife’s slave. Of course, this attempt to speed along God’s promise through their own wisdom turned ugly. Hagar, the slave-girl, becomes pregnant with a son named Ishmael. Only then does Sarah regret her actions. She complains to Abraham, who shrugs his shoulders and denies any responsibility in the matter. Sarah quickly comes to hate Hagar, treating her “so harshly that she ran away”. Craig Brown, pastor of City Church in East Nashville, noted how Exodus uses the same word for harsh treatment to describe Egypt’s cruel abuse of the Hebrew slaves. Sarah didn’t just say mean words and give cold looks. This wasn’t mere gossip with the other slaves to vilify Hagar. She beat the shit out of this poor woman, possibly to a point near death.

Looking at the story of Hagar this way, we might think differently of this righteous man of faith who’s trust stood as a testament in Hebrews 11. Instead of judging Abraham, though, we need to recognize this as a cautionary tale of what can happen when we fail to endure. It would do me well to remember what can happen when I try to take matters in my own hands because I’m frustrated and impatient.

When God appears to Abraham in chapter 17, he falls on his face in repentance. In no passage do I see where God punished Abraham for his sin (unless you consider adult circumcision punishment). What does God do? He repeats His promises. He encouraged Abraham to trust His promise and wait for the miracle.

In light of this, we can read that famous passage in Hebrews 12:1-4 with some new perspective. “So then, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (referring to the people spoken of in chapter 11), let us, too, put aside every impediment – that is, the sin which easily hampers our forward movement – and keep running with endurance in the contest set before us, looking away to the Initiator and Completer of that trusting, Jesus – who in exchange for obtaining the joy set before him (or promised to Him), endured execution on a cross as a criminal, scorning the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Yes, think about him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you won’t grow tired or become despondent. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in the contest against sin.”

Jesus, as our example, endured death on the cross because of God’s promises. He knew of the promises in the Old Testament where God would bring salvation through His Son, the Messiah. He repeatedly told His disciples that He had to suffer and die so God might fulfill these promises. During the beatings, mockery, unjust trials, shame, and crucifixion, Jesus could have called down angels and had them slaughter every offender. Yet He obediently endured and continued to trust the Father through it all.

Among the many things I believe God wants to give me, He has promised me a wife and children. A few years ago, I “grew tired and became despondent”. It pains me to say it, but I picked someone who I figured would say yes. We dated, got engaged, and I went on my merry way toward sinful misery. God, in His mercy, convicted me and I ended the relationship. Since then, I’ve continued on in trust, allowing Him to direct my steps toward a wife. But the path doesn’t always make sense and I must admit that I find myself again growing tired. I’m saying this partially to let you know of my own journey in trusting God. I’m also saying this because I need to sit in the front row of my own sermon. Abraham was 100 years old when God gave him Isaac as a son. I don’t think I’ll have to wait that long for God’s promise in my life, but shouldn’t I trust Him as if I did? Do I ever have a right to let doubt and weariness justify my own Ishmaels?

As an encouragement, I’ll end with James 1:2-4. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (NASB) God uses hard times like these because it produces endurance. It makes us stronger, more able to handle bigger promises and the challenges involved. James tells us that endurance through these struggles will come to our good. In them, we will lack nothing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Just and the Justifier - A look at God's justice through the cross.

“As far as I know.... Jesus's death on the cross is the pinnacle, the foundation of Christianity. Supposedly believing that he dies for our sins makes us Christians, grants us eternal life. But how does it make sense? They say God comes to earth as man and he dies not because he has to, but because he wants to. And that act of humbleness washes away our sin... cleanses us from this sin??? Right? It just doesn't sound right. Sounds like magic. I don't know enough probably. But I don’t see how one of many men dying on a cross helps me or anyone else anymore. I just don’t get it. A guy comes to earth lives a humble yet miraculous life, does great deeds, is persecuted, dies on a cross, frees men from evil.

Tell me what you know.”

(A friend of mine sent me the above message on Facebook. I thought I might share my answer to him in the form of a non-intrusive post.)

Let me start by explaining why I appreciate your questions. First, I can see that you’ve asked these questions honestly. By that, I mean you didn’t ask questions in an attempt to confuse or frustrate, thereby “proving” Christianity as foolish. Some people use this approach as an attack and passive-aggressively disguise it as mere discourse.

Second, you at least recognize Jesus as a person who existed in human history. I can’t tell you how many people have debated this point with me, ignoring all of the historical data and presenting no opposing evidence. If you agree that Jesus was a man, then you’re halfway there, which saves me half the trouble of explaining this to you. Still, some other parts to your questions imply that you are uncertain of Jesus’s divinity. Explaining how Jesus is God would take another discussion, one I welcome, but for this response I want to focus on the significance of the cross.

Third, I appreciated the question of God’s motive in your message. Why would God choose to save us? Many people mistake the ultimate motive for salvation by saying it was purely because of His love for us. While John 3:16 clearly says God sent Jesus out of love for us, the motive goes much deeper. Psalm 115:3 says, “But our God is in Heaven, He does whatever He pleases.” While reading the book Desiring God by John Piper, I learned how God’s ultimate goal is to glorify Himself. So the purpose of Jesus’s crucifixion was to glorify God and please Him. Prophesying about the crucifixion, Isaiah 53:10 says, “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” Knowing this helped me to understand the why behind the crucifixion, because scripture is also clear that we don’t deserve salvation and God is not obligated (whether out of love, goodness, or otherwise) to offer salvation.

You were right in saying this is the foundation and pinnacle of Christianity. I recently read in Death By Love by Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears (a book which I take much information from on this subject) “As important as Jesus’s teaching, kind deeds, and miracles are, surprisingly, it is Jesus’s death and resurrection that are emphasized in Scripture. Matthew devoted 33 percent of his Gospel to Jesus’s final week; Mark, 37 percent; Luke, 25 percent; and John, 42 percent. The rest of the New Testament builds on the reality and power of his death and resurrection, referring to the life of Jesus far less frequently.”

So why did God come to earth to die for our sins? Why was this the main topic of much of the New Testament? The cross, among other things, displays both His perfect justice and mercy. Justice is a massive theme in the Bible. At the beginning, God creates the world and calls it good. By chapter 3 of Genesis, man joins Satan’s rebellion and introduces sin to the world. From there, it seems, it’s a continuous cycle of stories where people sin and receive judgment.

Sin, essentially, is the same thing as crime. God set up law and order in the world when He created it. You and I have both sinned and committed crimes against His law. Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The punishment for these crimes is death. God said this in Genesis 2:16-17. Paul reminds us of this sentencing in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death”. We might not necessarily be killed on the spot when we break God’s law, but sin works out death in every area of our lives. Medical studies have proven angry, bitter, fearful, lazy, etc. people to have a higher likelihood of contracting disease. Lies, lust, jealousy, and resentment bring death to relationships. The examples just go on.

I’m not going to say my metaphors are perfect, but imagine that we commit these crimes and God the perfect judge rightly sentences us to a particular fine. Jesus, as perfectly innocent God, having no crime of His own to pay for, stands up and offers to pay for (or redeem us for) our crime. God the judge says that this would satisfy the court. This satisfaction of the law is called propitiation, and the legal declaration of innocence called justification. Because I accept Jesus’s offer, then I am free from the guilt and penalty of the law. If you don’t accept, then God will still hold you accountable for your crimes. He must demonstrate His law or else He would be an unrighteous judge, the kind we sometimes read about in the news and despise. Sadly, the just punishment is not a “fine” you could ever pay. It’s a death sentence.

Since “all have sinned”, nobody on Earth could pay for another’s sin. Everyone is guilty. It took God the Son coming down as a man, who could die, to live a life we couldn’t live and die in our place. I referred to Romans 3:23, but in addition to this look at verses 24-26. I’ll add some emphasis.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Before I finish, I want to touch on the point of eternal life since you mentioned it. The Bible tells of the eternal God who created everything including time. Eternity, as an attribute, means that He exists outside of time. He is not bound, as Cornelius Van Til says, by a temporal series of events. Otherwise He would have to wait for time to pass until His knowledge became complete. This is impossible in an omniscient God.

The eternal God existing outside of time can look at the whole of time at once. All of human history and mankind’s future are in His sight. The death of Jesus on the cross in history has immense meaning in the work of redemption. There are times that I still struggle with sin. But when I commit that crime against God, because I have put my trust in the work of Christ on the cross, God looks at the cross and continues to declare my forgiveness.

It does no good for God to merely “wipe the slate clean” when you accept Jesus as your Lord and savior. Clean slates have a tendency to get dirty again. However, the Bible teaches us about something called imputation. In this case, the word means an attribute of sin or righteousness is credited to all men by means of another. Paul best explains this in Romans 5 by saying God imputed Adam’s sin to all men born through him. Likewise, through Jesus, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to all who accept Him as their Lord and savior. By accepting Jesus in this way, not only does God legally forgive us of our sin, but He also considers us to have Christ’s righteousness.

This should astonish people. Every other world religion tells of a god requiring people to earn his favor by their good works and suffering. On the other hand, the Bible tells people how God knew of man’s inability to earn salvation. So He fulfilled the law by living a sinless life as a man, suffering, and dying on our behalf. Accepting this truth alone brings salvation and His favor. If sin brings death, and God forgives this sin in a person through Jesus, then the Christian has the promise of eternal life.

I know this might not have answered all the parts to your question and some of my points may have raised other questions. It’s hard to explain a whole doctrine within 2,000 words. But hopefully I’ve given you some understanding on why I believe in the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross.