Tag Archives: Faith

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.

Book Review: Family Shepherds

I actually read this book about a year ago, drafted this review, and then let it sit on the shelf for a while. I’m currently reading John Rosemond’s excellent book Parenting by the Book which shares some themes with Family Shepherds. I want to thank my own “family shepherd,” my dad, who both passed along this book and who wonderfully modeled how to lead a family.

Review

Family Shepherds: Calling and Equipping Men to Lead Their Homes, as the subtitle says, is about “calling and equipping men to lead their homes.” The book is a sort of follow-up to Family Driven Faith, a book which gave me a paradigm shift in how to think about church and family. In Family Shepherds Baucham looks at four responsibilities of leadership in the home: evangelism and discipleship, marriage enrichment, training and discipline, and lifestyle evaluation.

Family Shepherds is a call to men to teach their children the Word of God, to make marriage a priority, to lovingly train and discipline their children, and to evaluate their own lives.

Family Shepherds is written from a Southern Baptist perspective, which is not surprising since Baucham is a Southern Baptist minister. Since I grew up in such a church, I was pretty on board with Baucham’s underlying theology. There were a few areas where I would have appreciated a slightly more nuanced argument (with a little less blunt force). For instance, in discussing corrective discipline in chapter 12, Baucham spends a lot of time defending spanking, so much so that it appears that he advocates it as the method for corrective discipline. I think it would have been better (and more correct) if he had done more to demonstrate that it is a permissible form of corrective discipline in some instances and left it there. I strongly prefer the approach of John Rosemond in Parenting by the Book. Rosemond argues that “the rod” in Proverbs should be understood as a metaphor for what he calls “leadership discipline.” Rosemond doesn’t argue against spanking but he does argue that, when it comes to discipline, leadership is more important than method. Rosemond states “Effective discipline is conveyed not by methods, spanking or otherwise, but through effective communication of instructions and expectations – through leadership.” (Parenting by the Book, 221)

Despite this critique, the call to men to take up the responsibility of spiritual leadership in their homes is an important message, both for families and for the church and Family Shepherds is such a call. The book is not nearly as paradigm-shifting as Family Drive Faith, though. Also, some chapters of the book appear a bit disconnected from his overall thesis. It feels a bit like a series of disconnected essays, or more likely sermons, and later stitched together.

Recommendation

If you haven’t read Family Drive Faith, read that first. If you have, this book is a good complementary guide. It fleshes out a few areas (like marriage enrichment and discipline) that Baucham didn’t address in Family Driven Faith. If you’re a husband or a father, please consider God’s call to be a spiritual leader in your home. Your family needs it. The Church needs it. Our world needs it.

For what I think is a more superior book on parenting, check out Parenting by the Book by John Rosemond.

5 Crazy Acts of Faith (And a 6th That Will Blow Your Mind)!

It's a trap!

It’s a trap!

If headlines like the one above are any indication we are a culture obsessed with the extraordinary. I’m pretty sure that what’s true in the broader culture is true in the church as well. We love amazing stories of faith. They inspire us to dream big and act boldly. This is all good unless it means we begin viewing ordinary acts of faith as something sub-Christian. Sometimes God uses ordinary acts of faith for extraordinary purposes. Case in point: Daniel. Daniel is by every standard a hero of remarkable faith but what did he actually do? Here are his 5 (+1) crazy acts of faith:

  1. Daniel obeyed God’s laws. Daniel and his friends were carried off as exiles and eventually found themselves in the court of the king. To get them in top condition they were assigned a daily portion of royal food. Daniel, observing God’s laws regarding diet, “resolved not to defile himself with royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself in this way.” After some bargaining Daniel and his friends were allowed to eat only vegetables and drink only water. Because of their obedience God blessed them with knowledge, understanding, and favor with the king.
  2. Daniel gave God glory. OK, so Daniel did have one extraordinary ability. He could prophetically interpret dreams. When the king had a troubling dream Daniel stepped forward to interpret it. The King asked “Are you able to tell me what my dream was or what it means?” Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician, or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” Daniel was always careful to give honor and glory to God.
  3. Daniel had integrity. Eventually Daniel became a ruler of significance in his land of exile. Far from protecting Daniel, his new position made him a target. His coworkers became jealous and looked for a way to bring him down. But they couldn’t. Daniel 6:4 says, “At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.”
  4. Daniel worked hard. Did you notice the last word of 6:4? Daniel was neither corrupt (he had integrity) and nor was he negligent. He worked hard. He carried out his responsibilities to the best of his abilities.
  5. Daniel prayed. When those who wanted to bring Daniel down couldn’t find anything wrong with his life they looked for some other way to trap him and they eventually discovered they could trap him in his piety. They convinced the king to issue a decree that said that anyone who prayed to someone other than the king would be thrown into the lions den. So what did Daniel do? “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”
  6. Daniel did all these things all the time: Going to pray got Daniel in trouble. You know the story. He was thrown into a den of lions but God miraculously saved him. But what did Daniel do to get himself into that crazy situation? What were his extraordinary acts of faith? He worked hard. He obeyed God. He prayed. He gave God glory. He did all this when he was a lowly exile. He did it when he was boss over much of the kingdom. He did it when he knew to continue to do so would lead to his execution. And that’s what is truly remarkable. God used some pretty ordinary acts of faith to bring Himself glory.

We as the church in America are coming to grips with the reality that we do not live in a Christian nation. I’m inclined to think we never really did. Perhaps it’s just the veil being lifted. Regardless, those who want to remain faithful to God will find themselves in positions like Daniel. What will set the faithful apart will not be extraordinary acts of faith, but rather simple piety and obedience carried out in good times and in bad.

What does it mean to live as a foreigner?

Hebrews 11 says that Abraham lived “like a stranger in a foreign country” even while living in the Promised Land. He lived as an alien and a stranger, not interested in returning to his homeland and “longing for a better country.” He was searching for a “city with foundations, who architect and builder is God.”

Hebrews 11 is given for us to emulate the faith of the heroes mentioned within. So how do we emulate this aspect of Abraham’s faith? How do we live as foreigners and strangers in this world?

What it doesn’t mean

First, this isn’t a passage that teaches platonic dualism. Some might read the passage to mean that Abraham was a stranger in the physical world who was longing for a spiritual home. Being a foreigner in this sense means that our “true home” can only be found when we escape from our bodies and from our physical world.

But a “spiritual” reality isn’t the hope in Hebrews. The hope of Hebrews is in “a better resurrection” (11:35) and for an enduring and eternal city. Our hope is not simply in what happens when we die, but in what happens when Christ returns “to bring salvation to all who are waiting for him” (9:28), which includes a new heaven and a new earth.

Christians aren’t strangers on earth because of our physicality. We’re strangers because of our faith. Abraham’s faith set him apart. It made him a foreigner on earth and a citizen of heaven.

Second, this passage isn’t telling us to be grumpy or to seek “escape.” Abraham may have been longing for a country of his own, but he wasn’t seeking escape from the place God had placed him. His attitude must have been similar to that of Paul who stated, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He longed to be at home with Jesus, but he was by no means seeking to escape from this world.

Once we realize we’re foreigners and aliens because of our faith, it can be tempting to throw up our hands and say, “Just get me out of here God.” But that’s not the attitude we’re called to. We’re called to contentment, peace, and joy. We’re called to live life with a mission. This present age may not be our ultimate home, but it is the home God has called us to cultivate and enjoy.

What does it mean?

If this passage isn’t about ontological dualism and it isn’t about pessimistic escapism, what is it about?

First, to re-iterate, Abraham was a foreigner because of his faith, which in Hebrews also means his obedience. Living as a stranger means living out an ethical reality. 1 John 2:15-17 clears things up for us a bit:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

We live as strangers when we do not “love the world.” And, in this case, “the world” refers to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” To be a stranger in this world means to reject the sin that this world offers.

Matthew 13:22 is helpful as well:

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

We live as strangers when we are not caught up in the “worries of this life the deceitfulness of wealth.” We live as strangers when we realize that this life is not all there is, that our wealth and worries are temporary realities, and that we have something greater to look forward to.

A new perspective and a new identity

Living like a stranger means living with a new perspective and identity. The new perspective is an eternal perspective – the realization that anything that is offered to us in this age is as temporary as a tent (11:9) but that in the age to come we will inherit an enduring city.

The new identity is a switch in citizenship. You may not feel at home in this world. Maybe you’ve felt like you’ve lost a bit of your citizenship. You have. But take heart. Those who embrace their new identities as foreigners and strangers on earth receive the favor of God. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (11:16b).

“Get in the Boat!”

I recently read a quote on faith that described living by faith like staying afloat in water. You don’t swim by grasping at the water – that’s futile. You stay afloat by relaxing and just letting your body be carried. In regards to faith, then, we have faith when we relax in reality, whatever it might turn out to be. We destroy faith when we grasp securely to specific notions about God.

I read this quote while contemplating the life and faith of Noah, so the water metaphor latched onto a very concrete event “floating” around in my brain. I imagined Noah preaching this message right before the flood. I imagine him saying, “OK, a big flood is coming, but don’t worry, just relax in the waves and you’ll be okay.” What a useless message!

Of course, he wouldn’t have given the other message either. The message “swim like mad” would have been just as useless, although at least more in tune with our base sense of survival.

Instead, I’m sure Noah would have preached a pretty specific message: Get in the boat!

God promised never again to destroy the world again with a flood, but there is still a judgment coming. We can call people to just “relax, everything will be okay,” or we can council people to a flurry of religious activity (do this, don’t do that), as if by their own actions they could somehow save themselves before the holy judgment of God. Or, we can call people to a simple and profound message: “Get in the boat!” Turn to the One who can save you completely, not through religious effort, but through faith. Yes, there is a singular idea to which we must grasp – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – but we are grasping at more than just an idea. We are reaching out for a Person. And, more importantly, he is grasping for us.

Noah, and a word to my High School self.

I originally wrote this blog post in November of 2012 on another site. Tomorrow, though, I’ll be preaching (Hebrews 11:7) on this very same passage, so I thought it worthwhile to edit and re-post in this new space.

“By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.” Hebrews 11:7

When I was in High School, the worst part of the day was lunch time. It was the worst part of the day because I didn’t have many friends to sit with in the cafeteria. I did find some people I sort of knew, but I was always the odd one out and rarely participated in their conversations. After they ate, I would either awkwardly hang around or head off alone to my locker.

In fact, all of Middle School and High School was a struggle for me when it came to social events. I always felt a little out of place, a little lonely, and quite a bit different than everyone else around me. My unease came from an obsession to be liked, or at least not disliked, by my peers.

It wasn’t really until my senior year that I finally began to come to grips with my own identity and began to care a little less about how well I fit in, or didn’t.

I would like to say I had trouble having friends because I was courageously standing up for Jesus but I think most of the time it was just because I was socially awkward.

Noah, on the other hand, most certainly faced criticism because of his faith. In Noah’s time, the world was filled with violence and the people were extremely wicked. By contrast Noah was “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.” (Gen 6:9)

God warned Noah that he was going to destroy the world with a flood, something people had never seen before, and instructed him to build a giant boat; an ark. Noah responded in obedience, out of “holy fear.”

Noah displayed faith. As it says in Hebrews 1:1, “faith is being sure of what we do not see.” He was warned of something not yet seen (a future flood), was sure that it would come, and responded appropriately. Noah also had confidence that God would reward those who earnestly seek him (1:6), and in this case that meant escape for himself and his family from the judgment of God.

Noah most certainly faced mocking and criticism. He had already set himself apart as a righteous man, now he was building a giant boat in the middle of his back yard. One of the striking phrases of 11:7 is this: “by his faith he condemned the world.” This is an odd (and probably offensive sounding) phrase. Certainly Noah could not condemn in the sense that God condemns, that is, Noah didn’t cause the flood. Instead, he condemned the world in the sense that by his faith “he showed the wisdom of his own course and the folly of theirs” (Barnes Commentary on Heb 11:7).

Now, no one wants to feel condemned, either by God or by others, so there was most certainly a strong reaction against Noah, not just as a “crazy man” but as an enemy of the status quo. People didn’t just think he was nuts, they hated him.

Nevertheless, Noah put his faith in God and withstood the attack of the enemy. He was willing to go against the current (pun intended) and he was rewarded. Meanwhile, his adversaries were destroyed in the flood.

It takes faith to be willing to go against the current. It takes faith to be willing to be left out, or worse, because you trust God’s Word over man’s.

Based on this passage, here was my word to the students in our After School program, but it’s also a message I wouldn’t mind sending back in time to my High School self:

Going against your peers to follow God is probably more difficult at this point in your life than in any other. I get that. But be strong and courageous. God will get you through.

Be willing to stand up for what you know to be right. Be willing to opt-out from what you know is wrong.

At this stage of life, you are forming an identity and you have a choice. Your identity can either be formed by Jesus in obedience to God – which leads to the rewards that only He can give (salvation, eternal life with God after death, life to the abundance now) or you can be “conformed to the patterns of this world”, following the crowd, ultimately to destruction.

It takes faith to choose the former option. You have to trust that God exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Like Noah, it will take sacrifices along the way. But, choosing to follow God, even when it means rejection by the world, leads to a much greater reward.

Why Church?

Church attendance does not save you. It doesn’t earn you any favor with God. You can find better preaching and worship music on the radio or on the Internet. So why bother with church? Hey, you can just as easily eat coffee and cookies at home.

The book of Hebrews answers this in two broad ways:

First, a church needs you: The commands in Hebrews concerning “gathering together” are active/participatory rather than passive/consumerist. The pastor says in 3:13 “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that you may not be hardened by sins deceitfulness.” Again, in 10:24 he says, “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” And in 10:25 he gives the command, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” When this is combined with the uniqueness of spiritual giftedness, we can see each individual within the church has a unique ability to encourage others toward love and good deeds. Somewhere, a local church needs your abilities and encouragement.

Second, you need a church: The early Christians were besieged by persecution (as are many Christians around the world.) For them, participation with a local church was dangerous. Gathering together made them vulnerable to attack. Indeed, some Christians were “publicly exposed to insult,” sent to prison, and robbed of property (10:32-34). This produced a strong incentive for the Christians to either abandon the faith all together, or at least abandon others who did.

The writer of Hebrews, however, wanted something more for them than mere safety. The promise for those who persevered by the grace of God was worth for more than what they would give up. It was not a loss to give up earthly possessions in order to gain eternal ones (10:34). Indeed, it was even worthwhile to give up one’s life, for the sake of a better resurrection (11:35).

To be able to stand in the face of this persecution the pastor saw only one sufficient resource – the grace you can receive in the very presence of God. Only Jesus is able to draw us into the presence of the holy God. In approaching the Holy of Holies himself, through his perfect, once-for-all sacrifice, he saves us completely. Then he beckons us to follow him. We are told to “approach the throne of grace” with confidence” and “draw near to God with a sincere heart.” But what does this actually mean? There may be several ways to do this, but at least one thing the pastor had in mind was the act of corporate worship – the people of God coming together to praise God.

It is clear the pastor believed that if the people of God gathered together for worship and mutual encouragement they would avoid the fate of the wilderness generation that experienced the judgment of God, something he explicitly states in 3:13 saying “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that you may not be hardened by sins deceitfulness.” I’m not sure if you noticed, but it’s getting hostile out there and we need one another in order to cultivate our faith.

Find a community of faith where you can “set your hand to the plow” and get to work. That church needs you, and you need that church.