Category Archives: Bible Study

The gospel of sin management vs. the gospel of new creation

22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24

In the book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis asks the question: Is Christianity hard or easy? His response is that it is both hard and easy. It’s hard in that we’re called to give up our selves to follow Jesus – a nearly impossibly hard thing to do. It’s easy in the sense that God enables us to do it by giving us a new identity. It’s easier than doing what many of us try to do: trying to be good without doing the first step of having been made new.

C.S. Lewis puts it like this:

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown. – Mere Christianity

What Lewis is describing here is what other authors have referred to as “the gospel of sin management.” The gospel of sin management says that following God is all about managing our sin, trying to control it, trying to get rid of what is bad and increase what is good. Now, I’m all for self-control, for less sin and more righteousness, but “the gospel of sin management” tries to get to this step first and by itself, as though we can simply will ourselves into moral perfection.

Lewis argues that we need to be made new creations. We need new identities. He likens it to being toy tin soldiers being made into real people. And, for that to happen, we need to have come in contact with the One truly real person: Jesus Christ.

His argument aligns perfectly with Ephesians 4:22-24 quoted above. In the passage Paul calls us to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” This isn’t just code for “try to do less bad and more good” but live in accordance with the new identity we have in Christ. This new identity is closely associated a new mindset, a new way of thinking and looking at the world.

Only after this inner transformation are we called to the transformation of our actions, to sin management. Again quoting Lewis: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

But what if we’ve already been saved, we’re already receiving the new life of Christ, and we are still often on the losing end of temptation in our lives? How then does this apply? Perhaps we need to shift to the idea of surrender. We need to surrender “ourselves”, our own desires, our own happiness, to the will of God, and live instead in accordance with who he is making us to be. As James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Submission precedes resistance.

That is when self-control comes back into play – self-control as a fruit of the Spirit – as something that doesn’t arise from our own natures, but a supernatural gift from God, a natural outcome of living as new creations.

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What’s the role of the mind in overcoming sin?

How do we overcome sin, especially habitual sins which frequently defeat us? This is a challenge for many Christians and there are many different answers. I’m preparing for a sermon in a few weeks on Ephesians 4:27-24, verses which hold two major keys for victory over sin. One of those keys I want to talk about in this post: the importance of renewing our minds.

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

The first thing that struck me about this passage is how important right thinking is to Paul. Paul is urging the believers in Ephesus to “live a life worthy of the calling they have received” (4:1). That means a radical change, a departure from one way of life and entrance into another, a change of identity.

He urges them to stop living like “the Gentiles.” Here he uses this word as a stand-in for those who are separated from the life of God (see 4:18). Their lives are characterized by (1) a spiritual condition that is hardened against God, (2) a mind that is futile, darkened, and ignorant, and (3) a lifestyle that is characterized by a lack of moral sensitivity. If there’s an ordering of events here it would likely be that the spiritual condition leads to a darkening of the mind, which leads to a lifestyle opposed to God, but both my experience and the text lead me to believe that these are more interrelated.

My interest here is the emphasis Paul puts on the second part, the role of the mind. Paul describes the fallenness of the “Gentile” thinking in three ways. First, their thinking is “futile”, that is, it doesn’t get them anywhere. There’s motion, but no progress. Having denied God, they have denied reality. In denying reality, their thoughts get no traction, they’re ultimately futile. Second, their understanding is darkened. It lacks light and illumination. Third, they’re “separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.” Sometimes ignorance makes someone more forgivable (“they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong.”) But Paul isn’t describing ignorance in this way, but as something which makes them more guilty. They’re not ignorant because they haven’t had a chance to learn, but because they rejected the learning available to them.

Paul’s purpose isn’t to set up an “us-versus-them” polemic here, but to urge those Gentiles who had put their faith in Christ to “put off” this old way of thinking. It’s not “us-versus-them” but “who we were” vs “who God is making us to be.” How does this transformation from old to new happen? Well, if the problem is in the mind then the solution will also be in the mind. They were taught to be “made new in the attitude of their minds.” Having had their spiritual condition already transformed through salvation, they needed now to allow the transformation of their minds.

This renewal happens by understanding what they have been taught, namely, “the truth that is in Jesus.” This happens decisively when we hear and respond to the gospel, but Paul also has a continual process in mind. In other words, we need to be regularly taking in truth, remembering the truth that we have learned, and applying truth to our lives.

How does this apply to overcoming sin? We can, and should, deal with our sinful behaviors directly. However, sinful behavior is often fueled by lies. “I can’t stop sinning so why bother trying” is a lie. In the first place, those who are in Christ are no longer slaves to sin. In the second, the reality that we will never be perfect should never stop our pursuit of holiness. “This sin doesn’t hurt anyone” is a lie. All sin has destructive consequences and at the minimum it is harmful to you. Some lies are more subtle, even subconscious. No one would say that a woman is a mere object, but when men look at porn that’s how they’re treating them. It’s a denial of their full humanity. There are many other lies, or corruptions of the mind, which fuel sinful behavior. To deal with the root of the behavior, then, we need to deal with our minds – they need to be renewed.

We need to regularly meditate on the truth of the gospel. In the gospel we see the seriousness and destructiveness of sin alongside the grace of God, both to forgive and to enable obedience. The truth of the gospel undermines the lies we believe to justify our sin. We need to watch closely what goes into our minds. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” still rings true. Just as regularly feeding on the truth works its way into behavior that is pleasing to God, regularly feeding on lies, or on those things which will make us spiritually callous or morally desensitized leads to behavior that is displeasing to God. Paul is wise when he calls us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” (Philippians 4:8)

Of course, we can know all the right answers and still be riddled with sin. We need an inner transformation that goes beyond mere cognition. We need a shift in the will. At the same time, we’re foolish to neglect the role that our minds and thoughts in our spiritual formation. Want to overcome sin? Start by allowing God to transform your mind.

Is the Church weak or strong?

Pretty-ChurchIs the Church weak or strong?

Whatever adjective you put before the word “church” makes all the difference in this question. Is the global church weak or strong? Is the American church weak or strong? Is my local church weak or strong?

But the question I’m asking is if the Church (big C) is weak or strong? Are believers weak or strong?

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I rarely answer a question like this by picking one of the options. Is the Church weak or strong? It depends on what you mean. We are weak in three senses, and strong in at least one.

We are weak in the measure of our humanity. In our humanity we are a breath, we come from the dust and will return to the dust. We are finite and limited. We make errors. We get things wrong. Our strategies are sometimes ill conceived, our execution haphazard. Even on human terms of strength and weakness we are often seen as weak or foolish before a world that idolizes money and success. I have no faith in the human strength of the church.

We are weak in the measure of our sinfulness. Yes, the church is God’s holy people. We have been forgiven and redeemed. We are being sanctified. But our sin is still always before us. We wage war with it and we have the ultimate victory, but in the meantime, it wins some battles. Sin hampers our efforts. It weakens us beyond our humanity. This weakness is to our shame.

We are weak in the measure of our following after the crucified Christ. Jesus came in weakness. He emptied himself of the glory due him and came in humility. He humbled himself to death on a cross. He gained victory not through human strength, but through self-sacrifice. When he calls disciples, he calls them to take up their crosses and follow him. We take that same posture of weakness before the world, a posture of humility, death to self, and sacrificial love. To the extend we embrace this weakness, this weakness is to our glory.

But we are also strong. Or, at least, strength is available to us.

We are strong in the measure of our being filled with the fullness of Christ.

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. – Ephesians 1:18-23

Paul prays that the Ephesians will know, that is, experience, God’s “incomparably great power.” That power is the power of the resurrection, of Christ’s position at the right hand of the Father, and of Christ’s reign over every power and authority, spiritual and physical, present and future. Notice the path of exaltation. Christ is lifted higher and higher throughout the passage. But the passage ends in descent, with Christ’s unique relationship with the Church – those who have put their trust in him. He exercises is headship over all things for the church. To the extent that the church is filled up with Christ, it knows the power of God. In this, then, we are strong.

How can we be filled up with Christ? By trusting and depending on him. Paul himself was no stranger to the weakness of the flesh, or of his battle with sin. But he learned that he could depend on God’s grace so that when he was weak, then he was strong, not a strength from himself, but Christ’s work in him. God gives grace to the humble. He strengthens the feeble. When we participate with him in his suffering, we can be assured that we will participate with him in his resurrection.

What does this power look like? Is it what the world will recognize as power? Perhaps. But more often it will only be manifested in weakness. It will show up as courage in the face of danger, hope in the face of suffering, perseverance in the face of temptation, and steadfastness under pressure.

So, is the American church strong or weak? Is the local church strong or weak? Is the global church strong or weak? To the degree we depend upon God and are filled up with Christ, we will remain strong.

Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.

What does it mean to “fear the LORD”?

Psalm 128:1 “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.”

What does it mean to “fear the Lord?” Does it mean to be “afraid” of God? Does it mean to have a feeling of reverence and awe? I decided to look through Scripture to see how this phrase was used. While there are certainly more thorough explanations out there, here’s what I discovered:

First, the fear of the LORD is the attitude that comes from a recognition of God’s greatness

Occasions in Scripture in which “fear the LORD” appears often coincide with descriptions of God’s unparalleled greatness. Deuteronomy 10, which includes commands to fear the LORD also includes descriptions of his character: “To the LORD you God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (10:14). “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome” (10:17). “He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes” (10:21).

Other passages of Scripture also directly relate the manifestation of the power of God with the fear of the Lord. After crossing the Red Sea Exodus 14:31 says “when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” And again, after God dried up the Jordan for the Israelites to cross: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God” (Joshua 4:24). The fear of the LORD is also tied to a recognition of him as Creator, as the one who made the heavens (1 Chronicles 16:26), the one who spoke all things into existence (Psalm 33:8-9), and the one who established the boundaries for the sea (Jeremiah 5:22).

What sort of attitude are the writers describing here? “Reverence” is probably the best description. Psalm 102:15 says “the nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.” The nature of Hebrew poetry invites us to draw a close parallel between “fear” in the first half of the verse and “revere” in the second half (see also Psalm 33:8-9). Jeremiah links “fear” with “trembling” (Jeremiah 5:22), showing that the sort of reverence intended is that which shakes us to the core.

Does the fear of the LORD imply fear of God’s judgment? While God certainly warns Israel frequently of impending judgment if they should turn away from Him, the phrase “fear the LORD” is not often linked with a threat of judgment. The closest connection comes in 2 Chronicles 19:9-10 where Jehoshaphat warns the judges whom he is appointing that they should “serve carefully and wholeheartedly in the fear of the LORD,” doing justice, or risk the LORD’s wrath coming on them and their community. Again, in Isaiah 8:13, Isaiah says that “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” So, while there is a sense in which fear the LORD has the possibility of judgment for sin in view (indeed, those who lack the fear of the LORD are also those who sin because they do not expect God to judge), it does not appear to be the dominant meaning of the phrase.

Instead, the fear of the LORD is connected with the attitudes of hope and trust. The psalmist parallels the fear of the LORD with “hope in his unfailing love” in both Psalm 33:18 and 147:11. Psalm 40:3 and Exodus 14:31 connect the fear of the Lord with trust in him. It makes sense that the people of God would see the power of God – and the reason for the reverent awe described above – as a reason to put their hope and trust in God, since God so often used his power on their behalf.

Second, the fear of the LORD is equated with obeying God’s commands

But the command to “fear the LORD” does not just describe an attitude, but a concrete action – obedience to the commands of God. Our opening text, Psalm 128:1, shows this parallelism immediately: “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.” Deuteronomy 10:12-13 expands on this: “to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to serve the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees.” Deuteronomy 10:20 connects the fear of the LORD with serving him and taking oaths in his name. This is the pattern throughout. See Deuteronomy 6:2 (“keeping all his decrees”), 6:24 (“obey all his decrees”), Joshua 24:14 (“serve him with all faithfulness”), 1 Samuel 12:14 (“serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands”), 12:24 (“serve him faithfully with all your heart”), Job 28:28 (“shun evil”), Psalm 111:10 (“follow his precepts”), Psalm 112:1 (“find great delight in his commands”), Proverbs 3:7 (“shun evil”), and Proverbs 8:13 (“to fear the LORD is to hate evil”).

This obedience to God’s commands is then tied to the blessings of God (again, see Psalm 128), long life in the land, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding (which leads to even greater blessings). But the question of what it means to receive the blessings of God is a question for another day.

In summary, then, to fear the Lord begins with an understanding that He is the Creator God who is mighty and powerful. This understanding ought to lead us to a place of reverent awe, even trembling, though this is not the same thing as “being afraid.” (This is especially true for those who are “in Christ” and therefore should no longer have the fear of final judgment.) Finally, this attitude should lead us to love God, serve Him, shun evil, and obey his commands as we hope and trust in Him.

Futility and Toil (on Psalm 127 and Ecclesiastes)

Both Ecclesiastes and Psalm 127 are historically attributed to Solomon and it’s easy to see the connection. Both deal with issues of futility and toil. The central theme of Ecclesiastes is the meaninglessness and utter futility of life “under the sun.” Likewise, Psalm 127 warns that if “the LORD does not build the building, the builder labors in vain.” But neither portion of Scripture leaves us without hope. Life need not be futile. Here are two things we can do to deal with the often apparent (and real) futility of our labor and our lives.

Receive

We begin with a basic principle: God gives. The world exists because God gives. Any meaning which we may find in life comes out of this first and most basic of principles. God’s actions are prior to ours, and so his purposes are prior and foundational to our purposes.

God gives wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:26), he gives life (5:18, 8:15), he gives possessions, and sometimes the ability to enjoy those possessions (5:19), but not always (6:2). In Psalm 127 we see that God gives sleep (Psalm 127:2) and children (127:3). (Apparently he just doesn’t give them at the same time.)

Our first response as part of God’s creation, then, is to simply receive those gifts with gratitude – to enjoy them. While receiving a gift seems simple enough, it’s harder than it looks. Those who do not receive the gift of God’s rest, but instead buck against it in self-reliance, rise early and stay up late, toiling away “in vain” (Psalm 127:2). Those who receive great wealth, but not the ability to enjoy that wealth, suffer a grievous evil (Ecclesiastes 6:2).

The writer of Ecclesiastes himself was a man of great wealth, great wisdom, and great accomplishments, and yet he spent much of his time in misery. One of the great lessons he learned was that it was in a man’s best interest to enjoy the life which God had given him (Ecclesiastes 9:9).[1]

Our first response to the futility of life is to receive what God has given us, and enjoy it as a gift from him.

Align

Our second basic principle is this: God’s actions have the ability to establish our actions.

Psalm 127:1 establishes this principle.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.”

There are two ways to express this. Positively we can say that if God’s actions coincide with our actions (God builds and the builder builds, God watches and the guard watches) our actions are not in vain. They are “established” (Psalm 90:17). Negatively, we must say that if God is not present with us in our actions, or if he opposes our actions, then our actions will be in vain.

Our task, then, is to align our deeds with God’s deeds. But how do we do this? How can we know what God is doing? Do we need to discern God’s will? The answer is “yes” and “no.” There is a distinction between God’s sovereign will and his moral will. His sovereign will – much of it anyway – is a mystery to us and will remain so this side of Heaven. But his moral will is something he has made known. It is available to us in his Word.

When I say we need to “align” our actions with God’s I mean, simply, that we must obey what we know of his moral will. To do so will lead to our actions being established. This can most easily be seen by looking at its opposite.  Consider the following syllogism:

  1. If God is does not participate in an action, it will be futile.
  2. And, God never participates in sin.
  3. Then, our sinful actions are always futile.

Conversely, then, it would make sense that our actions which are “in step with the Holy Spirit” are of the sort that God would establish, make “stick.”

But this is certainly not always our experience. Often sin appears to be profitable. The wicked prosper while the righteous suffer loss. Does not this reality contradict my claim above? Only if we view things from a purely human perspective. In the end, God the Judge will bring to judgment – for good or for ill – all of our deeds done in the body. Even if our good deeds have no apparent “earthly” reward, we can be assured of God’s heavenly reward, his commendation of us as “good and faithful” servants.

This is another way of restating the preacher’s conclusion of Ecclesiastes 12:13-14:

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

To keep God’s commandments is to align ourselves with his moral will. To align ourselves with God’s will is to trust in his final judgment.

How does this relate to the futility of life?

First, work done apart from God is futile.[2] If we want the possibility of our works being “established” we need to seek God’s participation, and that means seeking his moral will and obeying his commands.

Second, since God’s works are foundational and decisive, we can trust that He will establish those things he wants to establish. He will give meaning to our lives. Sometimes he works with us. Sometimes he works in spite of us. And, sometimes he opposes us. Even if we do not see meaning or purpose in our lives, we can trust that God is still moving history towards a grander purpose.

Third, and finally, we need to broaden our understanding of “success.” If we determine success only by outward criteria, many of our sacrifices will appear to be wasted effort. But, if we view “success” through God’s eyes we will be able to see that our efforts are not wasted. Our deeds, when done to the glory of God, no matter how small, find their meaning and value in God Himself, the Person of infinite value, the meaning Maker.

Notes

[1] There is a strong note of irony in Ecclesiastes 9:9

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.

It feels like a mixed message. We should enjoy our lives (true), but are those lives truly meaningless? Your life is a gift from God (true), but is that gift no more than days filled with toilsome labor, with spinning your wheels? This is one of the central tensions in the book of Ecclesiastes. The tension arises from the fact that we live in the world post-Fall. God’s gifts are good and we are to receive them with joy, but even all those good gifts are tainted with sin and brokenness.

[2] One of the incredible things about God is that he is able to make meaning and value out of acts that are in direct rebellion to his moral will. Think: Joseph’s brothers selling him to Egypt. This is a wonderful reality, but it doesn’t invalidate the ultimate futility of the act itself. God uses futile deeds to bring about meaningful results.

Can the American Church be Restored? Or, Beware the Egyptians

Since preaching on Psalm 126 last Sunday (link to the sermon) I have been reflecting on the history of Israel, on their fall, and on their restoration. At the same time, I have seen a lot of worry over the status of the American church. Sometimes that worry is overblown, but there is cause for concern. Many are asking, can the American church be restored? And, what would it take for that to happen?

First, let me frame the question: I am not asking whether or not America can be restored, but whether or not the American church can be restored. In the Old Testament national Israel is the people of God. The closest correlation to Israel, is not America, but the Church, the people of God in Christ. Second, I am not asking whether the Church can be restored to cultural prominence – though that would be great, or political power – a mixed bag of good and bad, but whether we can be restored to faithfulness to the new covenant of Jesus, whether we can be restored with spiritual life and vitality, whether our dim light can once again shine brightly in a dark world.

I want to connect that question with the story of Israel.

God brought Israel into the Promised Land and he laid before them the promise of blessings – full, abundant, gracious, and glorious blessings. Read Deuteronomy 28:1-14 to understand the scope and nature of that blessing. God also set before them “covenant curses”, consequences from deciding not follow God. Those curses (warning, tough reading) are spelled out in the rest of Deuteronomy 28. The culmination of those curses is exile, expulsion from the Promised Land.

What we see next is a long and tortured history. Israel falls into a series rebellion and repentance, first under judges and then under kings. Collectively, Israel chooses to turn away from God and God, being faithful to his covenant, brings judgment. That judgment takes the form of foreign nations invading the land and taking the captives of Israel into exile. Israel messed up and they were facing the consequences.

As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.

Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).

As Jeremiah predicted, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. In the aftermath of this terrible event the people asked Jeremiah what God wanted them to do. Jeremiah gave them this encouraging word of God: stay in the land, don’t be afraid of the king of the Babylonians, I have had compassion (Jeremiah 42:10-12). He also gave them this stern warning: Do not go to Egypt! “If you are determined to go to Egypt and settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you to Egypt, and there you will die” (Jeremiah 42:15b-16). Why this stern warning? Because Egypt was still under God’s judgment. To go to Egypt would be moral compromise. And here I think is one of the moral principles of this text: If moral compromise is what got you into the mess, moral compromise won’t get you out!

Israel would have been better to listen to the words of Moses when he predicted the exile in the first place: Repent and return to God and lean on his mercy and covenant faithfulness! (See Deuteronomy 30:1-6)

So is spiritual renewal and restoration possible for the American church? Yes. God makes restoration possible in any and all circumstances. But how will we get there?

Repentance and faithfulness to God.

We will not get there through moral compromise. And, to the extent that reliance on political power, or cultural influence, or methodologies, take us into a place of moral compromise, we will be led deeper into judgment, not out of it. It might lead to short term gain, but it will lead to long-term loss. Going to Egypt isn’t the answer.

I have up in the background of my computer the live stream of #Together2016, a one-day event at the Washington Mall. One thing they are getting exactly right is a call to repentance, not a call to national repentance, but a call to repentance of the church. Louis Giglio put it well, in citing 2 Chronicles 7:14, he said “God is saying ‘my people’, not ‘those people’ or ‘some people’, but ‘my people.’” And the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the redeemed people, the people called by the name God.

If we want renewal within the church, it begins within the church. Recognition of sin starts with recognition of our sin. That recognition leads to repentance. And that repentance opens up the possibility of renewal.