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Saturday, February 9, 2019

I turned off the man-made stuff and looked directly at what God has made

When I go to bed at night, I usually put my phone and tablet on their chargers across the room, and I do that for a reason. When I wake up in the middle of the night and can't sleep, or wake up in the early morning and have some time to spend with the Lord, I don't want to be tempted to go online, so the only thing I have by my bed is my Kindle Paperwhite, which doesn't have the internet but has the Bible and my devotional books on it. I also want to be able to pray when I can't sleep or when I'm starting my day.

Last night for some reason I left my tablet next to my bed, so sure enough when I woke up this morning--without even thinking about it--I grabbed it and looked at the news and Facebook. Now let me say right now that I do think it's possible to honor God and even pray to him while looking at the news or Facebook, and the one article I read was actually about a spiritual issue. But then thankfully my attention was drawn away from the tablet by a big fat robin with a bright orange breast alighting on a branch just outside my window. The sunrise was making the bird's color even more brilliant, and I found myself praising the Lord for his creation.

I shut off the tablet and put it down on the floor and just lay watching the robin and the light from the sunrise, thinking about how great God is and asking him to do some things for me and my family that only a great God could do. And I was noticing that though I can praise and pray to God while I'm on my devices, it's a lot easier to do it when I'm not on them and I'm looking at what God has made. I even thanked God for the dog sleeping on my couch under the window, because he's cute and nice and basically well-behaved, except for when there's an opportunity to get food from the trash can or the table. :) I'm also more thankful for Toby lately because we recently had to put down our other dog Angie, because she was 16 years old and suffering from dementia and various other ailments.

Though they can be deeply misguided in many ways, there's something to the common sayings like "I was communing with nature" or "I never feel closer to God then when I'm out in his creation." I think we would all do well to plan times where there are no electronic devices of any kind on hand, when we can enjoy what God has made directly and praise him as we do. We probably will also talk to him a lot more at those times, sharing our struggles and requests with him, when we don't have social media and other man-made inventions vying for our attention.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Martin Luther Galatians Series

A friend of mine is starting to teach through Galatians, and I realized I never catalogued my whole series of posts on Luther's commentary, to make it easy for reference. So here are the titles and links for all my posts on Galatians and Luther, in case you'd like to check out any or all of them...

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 2 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:2)

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 3 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:3)

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 4 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:4)

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 5 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:5) 

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 6 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:6) 

Preachers who should be castrated (Galatians 5:7-12 and Luther's comments on it) 

Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone (Luther's commentary on Galatians 5:16-26) 

Luther on restoring the fallen (from his commentary on Galatians 6:1-5) 

Blessed to be a blessing (Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians 6:6-10) 

It's a conspiracy! (Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians 6:11-18)

John Calvin (and some other guys) on the Prosperity Gospel

One of our prevalent modern heresies was apparently alive and well way back in the 16th Century! 

The "Prosperity Gospel" is the kind of teaching that says or implies that God promises to give us earthly, physical, and financial blessings (aka "health and wealth") if we have enough faith (or the right kind of faith). 

In my time with the Lord this morning I came upon the following quotes by John Calvin on Joel 2:30-31 (I'm studying Joel in preparation for a book project). The great Reformer is commenting on why God includes warnings of catastrophe right after promising blessing to his people (if they repent):

The Prophet warns them of what would be, lest the faithful should promise themselves some happy condition in this world, and an exemption from all cares and troubles; for we know how prone men are to self-indulgence. When God promises any thing, they flatter themselves and harbor vain thoughts, as though they were beyond the reach of harm, and free from every grief and every evil. Such indulgence the flesh contrives for itself. Hence the Prophet reminds us, that though God would bountifully feed his Church, supply his people with food, and testify by external tokens his paternal love, and though also he would pour out his Spirit, (a token far more remarkable,) yet the faithful would continue to be distressed with many troubles; for God designs not to deal too delicately with his Church on earth; but when he gives tokens of his kindness he at the same time mingles some exercises for patience, lest the faithful should become self-indulgent or sleep on earthly blessings, but that they may ever seek higher things.

We now then understand the Prophet’s design: he intends not to threaten the faithful, but rather to warn them, lest they should deceive themselves with empty dreams, or expect what is never to be, that is, to enjoy a happy rest in this world.

Calvin then goes on to discuss the irony that such warnings, in addition to keeping us from expecting material prosperity, are actually intended to increase our spiritual prosperity--they make us realize how much we need the Lord and enable us to receive more of the grace that he gives to the humble (James 4:6, I Pet. 5:5)...

We then see that this was added for the fuller commendation of God’s grace, that men might know, that they would be much more miserable if God called them not to himself by the shining light of his Spirit. And that this was the Prophet’s design, we may learn from the discourse of Christ, which he made to his disciples a short time before his death. They asked what would be the sign of his coming, when he reminded them of the destruction of the temple, (Matthew 24:3-25:46). They thought that he would immediately accomplish that triumph of which they had heard, that they would be made participators of that eternal beatitude of which Christ had so often spoken to them. Christ then warned them not to be deluded with so gross a notion. He spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem, and then declared that all these things would be only the presages of evils.... As Christ then corrected the mistake, with which the minds of the disciples were imbued, so the Prophet here checks vain imaginations, lest the faithful should think that Christ’s kingdom would be earthly, and fix their minds on corn and wine, on pleasures and quietness, on the conveniences of the present life.

In recent years I've corresponded with a friend who has been influenced by some Property Gospel teachers in the "Word of Faith" movement. Here are some summary thoughts I shared with my friend in an email:

The bottom line, as simply as I can put it after studying the Word for many years, is this: I believe that the idea that God promises us physical health and wealth in this life is a false teaching. He absolutely promises us spiritual and heavenly health and wealth if we obey and give, but taking all the Scriptures together reveals that he will only bless some believers at some times with those physical earthly blessings. Our faith/confidence should be in the fact that he guarantees spiritual and heavenly blessings to us, even if and when we are suffering physically or financially on the earth. And that can happen even when we are fully believing God and sacrificially giving to his work. In other words, our physical or financial suffering is not necessarily a result of a lack of faith, and it will not necessarily be "fixed" by more faith on our part.

This reminded me of the following section from an appendix in From Embers to a Flame by Harry Reeder and me, where we were talking about a best-selling book called The Prayer of Jabez (remember that craze?). The Word of Faith movement is not the only place Prosperity Gospel belief and teaching can show up...

God often answers our prayers with a “No,” and He also often answers them in a way that is contrary to our desires (Matt. 26:39-42; 2 Cor. 12:8-9).  And this leads to another major problem with the Jabez book:  it implies that the “blessing” of God will always be something we like.  The Bible says, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4) and, “If you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed” (1 Pet. 3:14, 4:14), But Wilkinson gives the impression that “praying Jabez” will get you what you want.  He begins the book by saying, “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers,” and he apparently believes that the answer will always be “Yes.”  I say that because the book never discusses the idea of unanswered prayer.  Nor does it ever teach the important biblical truth that God knows better than we do, and therefore many times He does not give us what we want, because it would be bad for us.  All of Wilkinson’s examples, on the other hand, are examples in which his desires were fulfilled.  And he says repeatedly that the result of this prayer will be “miracles”—hardly a term that can be understood as including blessings like suffering and persecution!  In this way The Prayer of Jabez unfortunately echoes some themes associated with the “prosperity gospel,” as its critics have pointed out. 

The prayer recorded in 1 Chronicles 4 is part of a narrative portion of Scripture, and therefore must not be taken as normative.  Jabez received what he wanted, by God’s sovereign design, but that result cannot be expected by everyone who seeks it.  In His infinite wisdom and love, God often blesses us by withholding the “blessings” we ask for.  So the many testimonials of “answered” prayer in Wilkinson’s book do not necessarily prove anything.  There could be just as many testimonials of “unanswered” prayer, like the one displayed on a piece of clothing (an interesting addition to the parade of merchandise):

“I prayed the prayer of Jabez for 30 days, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!”

And here's a quote from Gary Gilley that we used in a footnote:

What we have here is the sanctification of selfishness, and of course this is one of the attractions of The Prayer of Jabez…. Wilkinson’s theology is much closer to the prosperity gospel than to biblical Christianity, though he denies it (p. 24).  In the prosperity gospel, miracles are constantly being promised when we meet certain conditions.  The proof that God will deliver is always based on testimonials, not on the foundation of Scripture.  Wilkinson has borrowed a page from the prosperity gospel’s handbook and is offering it to Christians, some of whom perhaps have never been exposed to such teaching before.  And he is doing so with great success”(I Just Wanted More Land, pp. 34‑35).

Whatever form it appears in, and whatever source it comes from (even otherwise good teachers), beware of the Prosperity Gospel! It has always been a danger, from the time of the Scriptures to the age of the Reformation, down to our own day today.

Friday, February 1, 2019

What’s the Big Deal (about Homosexuality)?

I’ve heard thoughts like this from a number of friends recently: “Christians focus to much on LGBTQ issues,” “They seem to treat those sins as worse than other sins,” and “There are only a few passages in the Bible about homosexuality, so why is it so important to people?”

Those kinds of statements/questions raise a lot of issues that could be discussed, but I want to focus on a truth that exists behind much of the sentiment. I think those who say such things are grasping something important: sexual proclivities and practices are not, relatively speaking, that big of a deal.
“Relatively speaking” are key words in that sentence, of course, because “we know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2). But “those who practice such things” in that verse refer to more than just LGBTQ people—the previous passage says, “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:29-31). And even more importantly, all those kinds of sins (including the sexual ones mentioned in 1:24-27) can be traced back in the passage to some heart sins that are at the root of them. Sexual sins and the others listed are just the outward fruit of the inward root, which makes the heart problems even more important, because they can exist even without coming to fruition in action and are actually enough to condemn a person just by themselves.

Take a look at the prior verses in Romans 1 with that in mind, and notice that in my comments about them I will use the word “we” repeatedly, because I have experienced these problems in my own life.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

Everything said there is true of heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, and the heart sins are really a much bigger deal than sexual sin, because they lead to it and can separate people from God even if they don’t produce more obvious problems of action…

Unbelief (verses 18-20). It all starts here. God has made his existence and attributes clear through what he has made, but in our sinful nature we suppress the truth that should be obvious to us. Further, we don’t believe what his Word says that his plans for us are for good and not evil (Jeremiah 29:11) and that he will cause all things to work together for our good (Romans 8:28). We don’t really believe that he is able to be sufficient for us in our suffering (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and we don’t really believe he is able to change us supernaturally—even our orientations and desires (Psalm 19:7-9, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Ungratefulness (verse 21). “They did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” God is the source of everything good in this world and everything good we have (James 1:17), through the loving sacrificial death of His Son Jesus Christ on our behalf (Galatians 3:13-14). But in our discontent we focus on the things we don’t like about our lives and in our ingratitude we become seemingly incapable of being content with whatever we have or don’t have (Philippians 4:11-13). I say “seemingly” because it’s not God’s fault that we feel this way—it’s because we haven’t practiced thankfulness in our hearts like we should have, and we’ve allowed our desires to become too important (James 1:13-15). And I say “seemingly incapable” because we actually are able to change and become more content and grateful in whatever situation we find ourselves—that goes back to believing what God has promised in the Word (Philippians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 10:13).

Pride (verse 22). “Claiming to be wise” contains a Greek verb with a root meaning of elevating one thing over another—in this case themselves, as the KJV version reflects when it says “Professing themselves to be wise.” Our sinful nature causes us to tend to look to ourselves and our sense of right and wrong, rather than to the One who created us and really knows what’s best. We tend to base our epistemology (how we know the truth) on our experience, observations, and reasoning, but we must realize that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Many times what is true and right will be different, even the opposite, of the way it seems to us. To understand the truth we need to transcend our earthly understanding and ascend to heavenly thinking by relying on Divine revelation from above rather than our own finite, limited capabilities (1 Corinthians 1:18-24, 2 Corinthians 4:18).

Idolatry (verses 23 and 25). As if our unbelief, ungratefulness, and pride were not enough to skew our thinking and incline us toward sin, we also tend to value created things more than the Creator himself. These can include ourselves and our desires, of course, but also other people and the relationships we have or could have with them. “Created things” we place too much value on (or “idolize”) can also include the majority opinions of people in our culture, the goal of happiness, and what seems to work (pragmatism). It’s interesting to think of how ancient people would erect statues and shrines for their gods, bringing sacrifices to them, and then if their crops or armies did well, they would assume it was because they were blessed by the gods. But in fact, even if that happened 10 or 100 times in a row, it didn’t mean that their gods were necessarily real, and if they were they could have been demons who wanted to keep them in spiritual blindness by giving what they want. So just because something seems to make someone miserable doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and just because they feel happy doesn’t mean it’s right, or good for them in the long run.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (verse 24). When we give up struggling against those heart sins and we give ourselves over to them, God gives us what we want, because we really don’t want him as much as we want what we want, and then we want him to tell us it’s okay. That’s the really big deal in our spiritual struggles! The dishonoring of our bodies with whatever kind of sexual sin (or any other kind of sin) is secondary in the sense that it is not the main problem that has to be solved. The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart, and when that is problem is fixed the other problems will not be as difficult to fix.

All that is also true of those who are heterosexual themselves but have concluded that LGBTQ behavior and other sins are okay with God and not harmful to people. A few verses later in Romans 1:32 Paul says, "Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them." And that fruit issue--approving what God does not--also can be traced back to the root issues mentioned earlier in the chapter. So if we are tempted to disagree with the Bible says about right and wrong, we should examine ourselves for those more foundational heart problems I just discussed, and repent of them. That is the answer to the moral devolution described in Romans 1, of course: repentance. Romans 2:4 says that "the kindness of God is meant to lead you to repentance." Because he has given us everything good we have, we should be more than willing to turn away from everything bad that we practice and approve.

Did you notice that I’ve said “we,” “our," and "us" repeatedly throughout this discussion? That’s not just a rhetorical device, because I’ve seen all this happen in my own life. In my past I committed some very harmful sins that were not homosexuality or adultery but clearly disqualified me from continuing as a pastor. Thank God he disciplined me severely and granted me repentance and change by his grace, and one thing I’ve realized since then is that the outward sins I committed were caused by prior and foundational spiritual problems in my heart—primarily ungratefulness and pride. Some serious long-term adversity had left me disillusioned with my life and ministry, and also self-righteous from defending myself so often. I started viewing the pastorate more as a job than a divine calling and I stopped following some basic rules of conduct that would have kept me from sin (thinking that it could never happen to me, because I was “one of the good guys”). 

If I had maintained and cultivated gratefulness in my heart like I should have, I never would have lost my zeal for ministry and been so susceptible to the temptation to misuse my time and energies. I would have been so thankful for the privilege of serving God—not to mention my wife and kids and church members—that I would have valued it highly enough to stay far away from anything that could ruin it. I also wouldn’t have let sin anywhere near my heart and life if I hadn’t let the constant need to defend myself trick me into thinking I could do no wrong. Pride is so subtle and powerful (Spurgeon said “When killed, it revives”) that it can take a situation where someone is innocent and unfairly judged or accused, and turn it into a situation where that same person is so full of self-righteousness that they need to be knocked down a few thousand pegs.

I see that second part of my heart problem in the story of Job, where he ironically progresses from a righteous man commended by God and suffering unjustly, to a more self-righteous man in need of a stormy rebuke from God. I plan to explore some implications of that story in an upcoming post, but for now, back to the issue at hand…
Is homosexuality (and other sexual sin) a big deal? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that like anything contrary to God’s will for humanity, it is displeasing to him and harmful to us (whether we think so or not, and whether we can see the harm or not). But no, it shouldn’t be singled out and treated as more significant than other sins, and the primary efforts put forth regarding it should be more focused on the heart issues than the actions that flow from them (Proverbs 4:23, Mark 7:14-23).

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