Monthly Archives: November 2013

Belief, Faith, Doubt, Unbelief

Last year I taught through Hebrews 11 in our church’s after school program. I selected this passage in particular for three reasons.

First, in this highly secular and materialistic age “faith” is seen as a kind of second-class knowledge.

Second, in this highly pluralistic society the object of faith tends towards the self. That is, the only kinds of faith that are encouraged are “faith in yourself” or “faith in what makes you feel good.” Since faith is seen as a second-class knowledge, it is totally disconnected from knowledge and radically individualized.

Third, I have heard that people learn well through story. Hebrews 11 is a catalog of some pretty incredible stories. Also, I needed practice telling stories.

My goal was to present stories of faith that rectified the first two issues above and pointed the kids to faith in the living God.

Just recently I finished reading Despite Doubt by Mike Wittmer. I wish I had had this book when I taught the series in the after school program. Thankfully, I had Wittmer for my Systematic Theology professor in seminary, so I don’t think I wandered too far off the path.

Wittmer has one particularly helpful chapter (chapter 9: belief) that distinguishes the concepts of belief, faith, doubt, and unbelief.

Belief, he says, is used in a weak and a strong way. We can say we “believe” something as a way of saying “I think” something as opposed to “I know” something. For example, I could say “I believe it will rain tomorrow.” I’m not completely sure if it will so I hedge and say I  “believe” it will rain. I think this is how most of the kids in Attic After School approach religious belief.

But, when Christians speak of belief in God we mean something more than that we just think God exists but aren’t entirely certain. We mean that we have knowledge of God and that we trust him. We are willing to do crazy things and stake our lives on this reality. That is what the heroes of Hebrews 11 did and it’s what we are called to do. This stronger use of “believe” we may call faith.

Belief, Wittmer says, “leans toward knowledge.” That is, if we believe something we seek it out. We try to become more certain. We try to gain knowledge. Faith, on the other hand, “leans on knowledge.” Once we become convinced we move to a position of trust, which leads toward the kind of action found in Hebrews 11.

Finally, this distinction helps us know what to do with doubt and unbelief. Doubt is a gap in our knowledge. We doubt because we are uncertain, because we can’t make up our minds. One way we resolve doubt is by seeking knowledge. This means, from a Christian perspective, seeking the knowledge of God.

Unbelief, on the other hand, is willful disobedience. Unbelief occurs when we know the truth but reject it.

So how then do we as Christians resolve doubt? One way is by growing in knowledge, as stated before, but the other is by dealing with any remaining patterns of unbelief. Act on what you know and seek God for what you don’t.

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Slasher Pastor Turns 1: Top 5 Posts and Future Plans

Earlier this month this blog turned one. I thought I would use this opportunity to reflect upon the past year.

First, some interesting (to me) stats:

Total blog posts: 137.

Most viewed posts:

#1: Dear Pastor, you are not King David – This post received overwhelming response on Facebook, mostly positive, I think.

#2: Book Review: Jesus Is _____ by Judah Smith – Book reviews generate a lot of search traffic and this one far exceeds the others.

#3: Modesty, Responsibility, and True and False Guilt – This post received overwhelming negative response from one guy, who told all of his friends to give me a piece of their mind. Not my most enjoyable time over the past year.

#4: Book Review: Draw the Circle by Mark Batterson – This review also gets pretty regular search traffic.

#5: Should we treat church buildings as holy ground? – Apparently a lot of people search on this topic as well. This is my one non book review post that brings in consistent views.

Countries Reached:

One of my goals in creating the blog was increasing the reach of my existing teaching ministry at church. I get modest international readership. This map shows what countries the site has been accessed from:

countries

Where am I going from here?

I don’t really know. After one year I’m pretty satisfied with my mix of topics. This blog mostly serves to clarify my thinking about various topics I am researching and/or teaching at church. It also provides the forum for book reviews – which gets me free books – and for weighing in on various contemporary topics facing the church.

Over the next year I hope to start combining some of my posts into collections and eventually into e-books (formatted PDFs). If anyone is interested in doing pro-bono cover art for any of these mythical e-books please let me know.

Blessings,

Steve

Four Questions to Ask When Trying to Find Your Calling

jerryrice

I found my next career!

In Despite Doubt Mike Wittmer offers some helpful guidance for how to answer the question, “How can you tell what God has called you to do?” For starters, ask these four questions:

Who am I you committed to?

Wittmer begins the discussion by reminding the reader that our first calling is to those to whom we are committed to, our spouse, children, parents, even our church. “I answer the call of Jesus by being a Christian, husband, father, son, brother, and active member of the body of Christ” (p 142). This reality forms the foundation of our calling, which means our lives don’t lose purpose, even if we lose our jobs.

I would like to say “amen” and add one more thing. If you’re deciding on a new career path you need to first consider those you are responsible for providing for. Follow your dreams, but not at the expense of your family.

What do I enjoy?

What you enjoy matters. God has created you with a unique personality and particular set of interests. When choosing a career path, asking this question is a good place to start, but it’s not the only question to ask.

What do I do well?

I love football and when I was a kid I dreamed of being a Wide Receiver in the NFL, of being the next Jerry Rice. I loved playing backyard football with my brothers. Then I started playing flag football in the Petoskey city league. In the whole season I caught the ball once, a freak interception while playing on the defensive line. I learned then and there that a career in the NFL was not my calling.

However, I would like to offer one word of caution. Don’t forget that skills can be cultivated and that ineptitude can be transformed into aptitude. When I was a teenager I was terrified of public speaking, now it’s a pretty big part of my job as a pastor.

What does the world need?

Wittmer: “You may enjoy stamp collecting, but this doesn’t seem to fill a void in the world. The world may not need more stamp collectors” (p 143).

The secret is in finding where all these things intersect. In High School my wife was good at science so she decided to go to medical camp to see if she should be a doctor. After all, the world needs doctors. While there she discovered, rather painfully, that the sight of blood was not really her thing. Good thing for her she also enjoys teaching and the world needs good science teachers.

Of course, I’m throwing the whole thing out the window and trying to follow two career paths simultaneously! I may not be the best person to listen to. Lucky for you these are Wittmer’s questions, not mine.

The Interior (Redemption in Hebrews 9 and 10)

In a previous post I attempted to describe the “shine” of redemption, the hope of freedom that draws us near. In this post I examine its “interior,” its underlying reality.

Part 2: The Interior

The shine of redemption draws us near. When we are honest with ourselves we are able to recognize the degree of slavery we are in. We may try to mask it but the fear of death, the shame of past sin, frustration with trying to earn our way to God, and specter of meaninglessness, but they each weigh heavy on our minds. The beautiful crystal shimmering in the blackness of the waves gives us hope, the possibility of freedom.

At this point, if we listen to the Word of God we see that we have reason to fear because our slavery is not some psychological neurosis that we can overcome with therapy and medication, nor are they imposed on us by some outside force that we might defeat, but all spring from the internal sinister reality of sin.

Sin

The core problem of the rituals of the first covenant was not that it couldn’t make people feel better (deal with their conscience, remove fear, etc.) but that they couldn’t really do away with sin. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” (10:4). But what the first covenant was unable to do, the new covenant accomplished in full. In place of guilt, Jesus makes us holy.

He makes us holy in two ways: Forgiveness and Sanctification. In forgiveness our sins are remembered no more (8:12), we are set free from the guilt of sin (9:15), and we are “made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ.”

In sanctification we begin a journey whereby we become more and more like Jesus. At the moment of salvation we cease to become slaves to sin, true, but we still need to work with the Holy Spirit to actually experience that freedom. I recently read an article written by a pastor who dealt with depression and addiction in his private life. In describing his journey of sanctification and freedom from addiction he says:

“Further, I saw that recovery from addiction—or any of the compulsions we struggle with—is a subcategory of spiritual transformation. Recovery is spiritual in nature. Christian spiritual practices are necessary tools for recovery.

The goal isn’t a stunning turnaround in behavior or to attain the approval of others. The goal is the genuine integration of God’s presence and ways with a person’s values and behaviors. That integration results in the healing of our soul and life, so that we are increasingly able to reconnect with our self, with our Creator, and with others.

That’s transformation!

As I’ve ardently pursued this life of dropping shame and cultivating serenity, of partnering with the Spirit and practicing mindfulness, of growing my commitment to being in healthy community and dealing with my difficulties as they are, my progress has not been even. But it’s been noticeable. My life in my head is much different today than it was six years ago. My possibilities for usefulness to others are greater than ever before. My relationships are richer and my marriage healthier and more satisfying than ever.” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2013/fall/where-lust-leads.html?visit_source=facebook)

The process of sanctification is hard and uneven, but Christians have at their aid the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, and hearts made soft by the grace of God.

Separation

The guilt of our sin separates us from God but, since Jesus took away our guilt, we can now enter into his presence. When Jesus entered into the true sanctuary, the presence of God, he did so on our behalf (9:24) and in doing so he invites us into God’s presence, too. We are invited to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and grace in our time of need” (4:15) and to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (10:22). The presence of God, the Holy of Holies which was not accessible under the first covenant, is available to us now in Jesus.

But, we rightly long for something more.

Eternal Judgment

We are freed not only from present separation, but from eternal separation.

We fear death for one of two reasons. First, we fear it if we believe it is the end, that our consciousness is wiped out, and that our souls, if ever real, are obliterated into eternal nothingness. The only thing that  frees us from this fear is the reality of God’s promise of eternal life and the reality of the resurrection of Jesus.

The second reason we fear death is because Satan stands as our accuser. He calls us before God and says, “this person has sinned against you and is deserving of eternal judgment.” And, in fact, Satan is right. Our sin brings guilt and that guilt before a holy God brings judgment. This reality causes us to fear, and rightly so. It is appointed for us each to die and face the judgment (9:27) where we must give an account before the enduring word of God (4:13).

Now we can see how Jesus’ death turns out to be a victory. Instead of us paying the price for our sins, Jesus did, and in doing so he robbed Satan of his accusing power. He defeated the devil through his death, enduring judgment of sin in his very body. So, instead of fearing eternal judgment we wait longingly for Jesus to come again, this time to bring salvation (9:28). We look forward to receiving our eternal inheritance (9:15), to entering God’s eternal rest (4:1-11), to settling in a city whose foundations are established by God (11:10), and to gaining a better resurrection (11:35). Fear is replaced by an enduring peace, having been cast out by a perfect love (1 John 4:18).

Freeeeeedom (Redemption in Hebrews 9 and 10)

“[The NT motif of redemption] is like an object that is being tossed around just beneath the surface of a turbulent sea; whenever it emerges from the waves it is seen from a slightly different angle, and therefore different parts of it are observed.” – Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments

“Freeeeeeeedom” – Dave Ramsey (/ Braveheart)

Redemption is one of those churchy words we need to keep around. Its basic meaning is freedom won at a great cost. In Biblical terms this means freedom from sin (and its effects) purchased for us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. But, as the quote above notes, there are a lot of aspects to redemption, what we are freed from, and what we are freed to.

I would like to add one element to the metaphor employed above. Let us imagine that the object just below the water is a precious jewel, a crystal perhaps, with a light shining on it. The first thing you see is  the shine of the light against the crystal but upon closer inspection you see the object in itself, its interior, its essence. The closer you look, the more beautiful it appears.

The same is true for redemption. The “shine” of redemption the way in which we first subjectively experience it, that brings about an immediate emotional response, that first taste of freedom – freedom from the fear of death, freedom from a guilty conscience, freedom from empty religion, freedom from a meaningless life. Closer to the core we see that redemption is freedom from actual guilt, from eternal judgment, and freedom from separation from God. Finally, at its very core we see the fundamental reality of the perfect once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross – that immeasurable cost paid as a ransom price for our eternal redemption.

Hebrews 9 and 10, set against the background of the Old Covenant, the law of Moses, and the Levitical sacrificial system, reveals for us a remarkably clear picture of redemption in all its glory.

This post, and two more to appear next week, form the initial structure of my sermon on 11/22 at WPBF. I restructured things since then, but here are some of the main ideas…

Part 1: The Shine

Fear of death

The theme of redemption in Hebrews begins in chapter 2. Verse 14 says that Jesus “shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who has power over death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” The author will explain how Jesus’ death frees us from the fear of death and how his death could ever be conceived of as a decisive victory over the devil in due time. For now, let us be the sailors in a great storm who first glimpse the beacon of the lighthouse. It’s not yet clear to us where this light comes but out of the overpowering darkness of the fear of death comes a glimmer of hope. All is not lost.

Guilty conscience

The Old Covenant, while a blueprint for the good things to come, was ultimately “weak and useless” (7:18) on its own. Instead of actually taking away sin the sacrifice of blood and goats only served as a regular reminder of sin (10:3). The author states that the earthly sanctuary was an illustration to show that the “gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper” (9:9). Instead of a weight being lifted off their shoulders, they continued to feel guilty for sin (10:2). By contrast God offers us redemption by way of Christ, who is able to “cleanse our consciences from dead works” (9:14) which allows us to “draw near to God in full assurance” (10:22). In Christ we experience freedom from the weight of guilt and from shame.

External Religion

Most of us in Christendom live and breathe the New Covenant. We cannot imagine life in the Old Covenant with its ritual sacrifices, its layers of separation, its dietary restrictions, and its hierarchical priesthood. But that is exactly the world in which Hebrews was written. To those original hearers the pastors claim that Jesus was now the High Priest, that the Old was obsolete and passing away, and that no payment for sin remained must have been both shocking and liberating. To make such a bold claim the pastor needed to argue both for the supremacy of Christ and the inferiority of the Old and, in fact, its inability to save.

After describing the sanctuary and the articles of the covenant the pastor states that this earthly sanctuary shows us that the presence of God was inaccessible to us (9:8), that the sacrifices couldn’t clean our consciences (9:9), and that they were only a matter of ceremonies and external regulations (9:10) which could only make us externally clean (9:13) and that had to be repeated year after year (9:25). Furthermore, the sacrifices could not make us inwardly clean, but only reminded us of our uncleanness (10:1-4). But all of this has come to an end, says the pastor, replaced by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, who is able to make us clean on the inside through a single act.

This internal work of Jesus frees us from external religion, from any need to perform ritual acts in order to earn our salvation. Instead of trying to earn God’s favor we simply receive it. Instead of trying to make amends for our own sin we accept the righteousness of God.

Meaningless Life

Paul paints a bleak picture of life before Christ in Romans 6. It is not just lawlessness or rebellion, but slavery. “You used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity in ever-increasing wickedness” Paul says. “Sure, being a slave to sin meant you were free from righteousness, but what did it gain you? Didn’t those things just bring shame and lead to death?” Sin is a master, and a cruel one at that, promising what it can never fulfill and only leaving destruction in its wake. The “sin-sick” who flocked to Jesus – the tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes – understood this better than anyone else and it was to them that Jesus’ words sounded like freedom. “When you identified yourself with Jesus you were set free from sin,” Paul declares, “and have become slaves to God.” The way of sin leads to death, but the life of holiness leads to eternal life.

Peter states it this way: “You were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). The writer of Hebrews agrees: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (9:14).

The Kingdom of God Recap: The Active God

We speak of the Kingdom of God as the active reign of God because the Kingdom is God’s and because God is active. The Kingdom is not the activity of men, nor does it spring from the work of a passive, abstractly sovereign God, but from one who is active in history. Ladd summarizes well when he says:

“The Kingdom is God’s Kingdom, not man’s … If the Kingdom is the rule of God, then every aspect of the Kingdom must be derived from the character and action of God” (Ladd, 171).

It is not surprising, then, that Jesus always spoke of an active God, one who seeks, invites, adopts,  and judges. God’s kingdom is supernatural and springs from the activity of God.

God Seeks

Jesus painted a picture of a God who seeks the lost. The parables of the Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, and Lost Son are all tender parables about the relentless love of God. After Zacchaeus repented Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).

God Invites

Jesus told a parable saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come” (Matthew 22:1-3ff). Those initially invited refused so the King sent more servants anyone they could find.

This is a parable of invitation and of judgment. The fact that God seeks and invites brings people to a moment of decision, to attend the banquet and enter the Kingdom of heaven or refuse and face judgment.

God Adopts

“The Kingdom” and God as “Father” are closely linked. Ladd explains: “Fatherhood is inseparable from the kingdom. Those who know God as their Father are those for whom the highest good in life is the Kingdom of God and its righteousness” (Ladd, 179).

Popular usage of God as Father places God as the “Universal Father.” We (all people) are God’s children. This is, in some sense, true. God is the Universal Creator. We are all God’s children through Adam. God loves everyone. However, in terms of the Kingdom, the use of God as “Father” was reserved for those who became as children and accepted the invitation of God. God is seeking to offer everyone his fatherly care, but only those who respond can rightly call him their Father, at least in terms of the Kingdom of God.

That God is a Father to those in the Kingdom again speaks to his Divine action. For, indeed, sonship is a gift. “The Kingdom of God gives men the gift of sonship and brings them into a relationship with God as their Father” (Ladd, 183).

God Judges

The dominant picture of repentance in Jesus’ time placed the emphasis on the action of man. God was sovereign but it was up to people to first seek out God. If people genuinely repented then God would respond with mercy.

The Bible tells a story that begins with God. God seeks the lost and invites them into his Kingdom and man responds to that invitation. The Kingdom of God is a gift. It is something we can receive, not something we earn. God’s love draws us to a point of decision – to accept or reject, to find mercy or judgment.

Ladd is worth quoting once again, “The very fact that God is seeking love throws man into a predicament. Man must respond to this overture of love; otherwise greater condemnation awaits him” (Ladd, 184).

In fact, Jesus’ words are filled with pictures of judgment for those who reject him. He says, “Depart from me” for those who refused to help others in need (Matthew 25:41-43) and calls the Pharisees broods of vipers for killing God’s prophets (Matthew 23:33-36). His harshest judgment comes upon those for whom God has given the most opportunity to repent.

The Supernatural Kingdom

Hopefully the above discussion helps us see that the Kingdom of God is God’s Kingdom based on His divine action in history. God invites us to enter and we enter when we become as little children and humbly respond to his love.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of sloppy language amongst Christians when it comes to using the language of the “Kingdom of God.” I have heard many times how a particular organization endeavors to “expand the Kingdom” or “build the Kingdom.” I know what they mean but it’s important to be precise.

If we survey the verbs associated with the Kingdom we see that the Kingdom “draws near”, “comes”, “arrives”, and “appears.” God can “give the kingdom” or “take away the kingdom.” People can “enter”, “receive”, “inherit”, “posses”, “reject”, “look for”, “pray for”, “seek”, “preach”, and “do things for the sake of” the kingdom. But it is never said that people “build”, “establish”, “give away”, “destroy”, or “bring” the kingdom. We have a responsibility in light of the kingdom but it’s God’s kingdom, not ours.

The Kingdom of God Recap: The Active Presence of God

If we say that the Kingdom of God is the active reign of God, in what way is God active?

Matthew 12:28, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” points to the fact that where Jesus embodied the Kingdom of God within His very person. Jesus demonstrated the reign of God by casting out demons and through His authoritative Word.

Casting out Demons

Jesus ministry was marked by his conquest over demonic forces which, as we have already noted, is evidence of the Kingdom of God. Ladd puts it well when he says “… before the eschatological conquest of God’s Kingdom over evil and the destruction of Satan, the Kingdom of God has invaded the realm of Satan to deal him a preliminary but decisive win” (Ladd, 151).

Authoritative Word

Another piece of evidence that the active reign of God was present in the person of Jesus was His authoritative word. This seems perhaps less obvious since it is hard to think of a “word” as an active thing but, biblically speaking, the very words of God carry with them the omnipotent power of God (see Creation). Since Jesus speaks the very words of God, his words carry the same weight, a reality Jesus himself perceived.

Note first Jesus’ proclamation that He fulfilled the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19):

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The authority of Jesus’ words are demonstrated again when he curses the fig tree. His words are not only authoritative (causing the tree to whither) but enduring: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mark 13: 31).

Indeed, Jesus spoke with such authority that he amazed those who listened to him: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).

Do we experience the Active Reign of God today?

I will address this in more detail in a later post but it’s worth taking a break to ask this question now.

It is clear that Jesus embodied the presence of the Kingdom of God and the reign of God on earth. It is also obvious that we will once again experience the reign of God, this time in its fullness, when Jesus returns. But, what about in this intervening time? Do we experience the Kingdom of God between Jesus’ ascension and his return?

One preliminary way of answering this question is to ask the question, “Do Jesus’ actions while on earth continue to have an effect for us today?” If we think briefly about the categories above, the defeat of demonic powers and the authoritative word of God, then we will begin to approach the answer.

The defeat of demonic powers (today)

Jesus’ ministry was marked by casting out demons and, as Ladd says, his work on earth dealt Satan a “preliminary but decisive blow.” In fact, Jesus’ defeat of Satan culminated not in casting demons out of individual people, but (surprisingly) by his death on the cross. Note Hebrews 2:14-15 “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” We experience the Kingdom today when we are freed from the power of Satan by approaching God through faith in Jesus. We experience God’s active reign when we are freed from the fear of death, from judgment, and from a guilty conscience.

The authoritative word of God today

Hebrews also gives a nice framework for understanding the active nature of the word of God. God’s word is alive and active. It pierces to our very souls. It brings us before the judgment seat of God where we must give an account. It forces us to submit to God, either now voluntarily, or involuntarily at the judgment. So, we experience the reign of God, the Kingdom of God when we experience the active word of God.

How is the Kingdom of God present? That’s the topic of another (later) discussion.