Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

For those of you who are reading this, I wish you a Merry Christmas, even if it is belated. My family and I will be traveling this week to Alabama, to Sand Mountain to be precise, to celebrate the holidays there. It is my sincere prayer that the King of Glory, Jesus Christ, will overcome us all with His grace and love this season. God bless you, and I hope to "see" you next week!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Where's the Power?

You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you (Acts 1:8)

In chapter 1 of Acts, Jesus Christ promised His disciples that they would receive power when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. In chapter 2, the promise was fulfilled. The Spirit of God descended upon the disciples in a show of fiery tongues accompanied by the sound of rushing wind. Not one disciple was excluded.

A little more investigation will reveal why it is that Christ gave the disciples this power. This is probably the most important thing to find out in the context of the power of the Holy Spirit. If not, we get side-tracked with the manifestation of tongue speaking and other miraculous gifts. I believe every gift given to the disciples of Jesus Christ, from Pentecost until now, has the same foundational goal: You shall be my witnesses.

This is the power that I long for. This is the power that I crave. I want to be a faithful witness to the glory of Jesus Christ. By that, I do not simply mean that I want the courage to be fearless, door to door witness. A Jehovah's Witness can work up the courage to peddle a false gospel at a stranger's door; that's not Holy Spirit power. That's fleshly willpower, and I believe that the Christian witness can operate in the same power that they do. I have, and I often do.

I am also not interested in the power to heal the sick or raise the dead or to speak in unknown tongues. I simply want the power of the Spirit to be in my life and in my words when I speak the gospel; to the end that people will be gripped by the beauty and glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

And I want my motivation to be pure. I want all the selfish reasons that may motivate one to witness to be forever purged from my heart. I don't want to be a witness to stroke my ego, my self-importance, or to be "a good pastor." The subtle nature of selfish pride in witness is awful. I see it lurking in my heart. It is an eagerness to see myself as a superior Christian to those who don't witness like I do, or they don't have the perceived boldness and confidence that I have. Such carnality is not worthy of the humble messenger of Christ, and I want it gone by God's grace. Does it live in your heart as well?

I do not want guilt to be my motivation either. Too often, I am propelled by a sense of evangelical guilt that I'm not "doing enough." It is another trick of pride to think that I could do more. The type of guilt I'm talking about points me only back to me. It comes from an errant view that "I" could do more if only I spoke more. It propels me forward in the flesh and not in the Spirit. God purge me from selfish guilt and the pride that causes it.

I want to be motivated by love for God and man. I want the power of God's love to fill my heart and life. If I am guilty of witnessing, it is perhaps that I do not love the glory of God enough, or that I do not believe that His gospel can truly save "the least of these." Perhaps I have forgotten where I was when God gripped me by the power of His love and terrified me by the truth of His justice. He killed the old man by the iron hands of justice and love, and I could not turn away from the glory of it all.

My love for God includes a love of His justice. Without His justice, there is no gospel. So, my witness includes the warning of hell, and my heart must come to grip with the fact that man is so sinful that he deserves an eternity there. Can you believe that if no one had been saved that it would have been good for all of mankind to burn in hell? It is true, and only a heart that has seen the ugliness of sin can begin to comprehend this. So the power of God necessitates a clear call to repentance. Isn't it a marvelous truth that if the most wretched of us repent and believe, we will be spared from this wrath?

The power I long for is a love from God that overcomes my pride and selfishness so that I may more clearly behold the wonder of the gospel. I want to feel its power in my sinful heart keenly, and know that if it works in that cesspool, it can work in others as well. I want to feel the truth of Paul's eloquent confession, "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (1 Tim. 1:15). I want others to be gripped by this truth as well, and I believe that this is the beginning of being a powerful witness for Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 18, 2006

It's Potty Time!

I know that this isn't theologically deep like Hebrews or as controversial as the UFC, but my son has poo-pooed in the potty for two days in a row. I never thought I'd be so thrilled to see poop in the potty. That's a big step towards manhood from my two-year old. I'm very proud.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Some Concerns About the UFC

A couple of years ago I went on a mission trip to India and came home with some sort of horrible illness. I wound up in the hospital with a 105 temperature, vomiting, and the general feeling that I was going to die. But I got better; after a day or so, I felt like a million bucks when my temperature dipped below 102. I had just enough strength to watch hospital TV and make the occassional trip to the bathroom.

Hospital TV is pretty terrible. There are three channels, and two of them show Bonanza all day. The other channel had the UFC, and I watched it. I like seeing guys beat up other guys, but I'm not so sure that it's something I should like, promote, or even condone.

The early church was adamant that gladiatorial combat was wicked, and certainly any Christian with any spiritual discernment would agree. The UFC is not a no-holds-barred kill fest, but it pushes the envelope of the law and it is brutal, and it is certainly not spiritually edifying, contrary to its popularity amongst many Christians today. I believe that it is a manly flesh fest, and most who watch it indulge in the fantasy that they could whip some tail like the dudes on TV. Of course, some claim that they watch it for strategy or something of that nature, but if you want strategy watch a chess match. It's the blood we like, and the gratuitous beatings.

Some may object that the UFC is simply training for personal self-defense. That's not true. The object of those matches is not to teach self-defense; it's to beat the other guy up worse than he beats you. Some will object and say that this is not the goal of the match, and perhaps they might be right in the first round or so. But if a guy gets behind points wise, he only has one choice in the last round: knock the guy out or put him into such terrific pain that he yields. What is the spiritual value in this? Self-defense can be learned without such sheer brutality, as is evidenced everyday in our military training and in martial arts dojos across the United States.

Just for you pastor/elders out there, I wonder how you equate this savagery with the command for an elder not to be a violent man in 1 Timothy 3:3? Is this the sort of attitude or behavior that we see in Jesus Christ or the Apostles? (I can forsee people trying to equate Jesus' temple cleansing with this behavior. My advice, don't go there; it won't work.) I confess to being perplexed over how such a brutal blood fest has been so easily accepted into the Christian community without much protest. I'd like to hear some opinions on this.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

And the Church Voted "No!"

It is a rare thing for me to blog about anything specific that goes on in my Church. In fact, this will be the first quasi-specific thing that I have blogged on since the beginning of my blogging. I only mention it here because I think that it is indicative of where we are as evangelicals, indeed, you may share the opinion of those I polled during Sunday School.

During one Sunday School lesson in the not too distant past, I asked this simple question:

"If it were up to you, and Jesus asked you if you'd like Him to return today, what would you say?"

The answer to this, I believe, is a good measuring stick to see how effectively I am teaching the glory of Jesus Christ. I will tell you now that the answer should be an immediate, unequivocal, "Yes! Come, Lord Jesus!" The overwhelming answer in that group, however, was a squirmy "No, Lord. Not today." Before you begin to think that I pastor a church filled with pagans and half-hearted Christians, let me give you the reason that most of them want Jesus to tarry: They worry about their lost loved ones.

On the surface, that seems to be a good reason to put off the Lord's return. But it isn't. Not by a long shot. Imagine if, which thank God this isn't the case, it required a Church vote for Jesus' return in glory. Can you imagine the majority of the Church voting No? It could happen, and it probably would at your church, and the reasons may not be so noble. Don't believe me? Poll your Sunday School class.

I have loved ones who, if Christ returned to judge the world tonight, would spend the rest of eternity in hell. Yet, I would be thrilled for Christ to appear in the Eastern sky. Why? Because I understand the reason for hell and the rightness of it. The Lord God will not punish anyone more than they deserve, and when we see His righteous judgment, we will marvel and agree that we could not have done better ourselves. Indeed, we will believe that any judgement other than hell would be utterly repulsive. So this excuse will not do. Hell is the proper place for the unrepentant. Come, Lord Jesus.

Others may object to Christ's return because they want to experience things in this life such as marriage, children, grandchildren, or a new Corvette. These things are only dim shadows of the joys of heaven. One moment in the presece of God will forever drive such flitting fancies away. This reason to vote no is only given because we have a poor image of the wonder and joy of being in Christ and of being in His presence and of sharing in His joy.

The good news is that Christ will never poll us as to when He can return. He will come just at the right time, and He will come when it pleases Him to do so. It is my desire as a pastor that everyone in my local church will live for this day, and that when it comes, they will meet the Lord with no regrets.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A Look at Apostasy Through the Lens of Hebrews

Here's something I promised a few weeks ago. If anyone actually finishes this mammoth thing, I'd like some input...or at least an "I made it" in the comments.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, apostasy is defined as follows: “abandonment of one's religious faith, a political party, one's principles, or a cause.” To the committed Christian, the very idea of abandoning one’s faith in Jesus Christ is at first outrageous, and then frightening. The inevitable question that begins to bounce around in the mind is whether or not a “true” believer could ever turn his back on Christ, and then if one could, what shall safeguard our own soul from this faithless peril? Such thoughts cause soul-probing thoughts, and a measure of fear and humility; all of which are needful in the Christian life.

The horrible reality is that there are those who abandon the Christian faith. Certainly, as long as the Church exists in the world, there will be those who join in fellowship with her members and then leave. Some will vanish from the ranks without a sound and others will go out loudly and with great fuss. If one of the Twelve forsook his place and calling, then it is inevitable that others will follow that path of anguish. In the end, Judas the Betrayer was a miserable man who hanged himself; his bloated body hung until his guts burst out onto the field purchased with the money he was paid to surrender his claim to eternal life. Judas’ despair is a hard picture of the end of an apostate, and it serves as a warning to those who would tread that path after him.

If such is the fate of the apostate, then the Church must labor to understand exactly what apostasy entails. She must not be fuzzy in her definition, and for charity’s sake, she must be accurate in whom she labels to be on that path. Apostasy is to be spoken with grief and dread, and it must be handled like a deadly spider.

Historically, no book has received greater scrutiny over the nature and danger of apostasy than the book of Hebrews. At least five passages contain specific warnings against apostasy: 2:1-4; 3:12-4:13; 6:4-12; 10:26-31, and 12:14-29. These passages represent some of the most difficult verses in the Bible, especially for many evangelical Christians. Before honest inquiry into the text can be made, certain biases of the reader should be recognized.

For the average Southern Baptist, the immediate theological doctrine that these passages or any discussion of apostasy challenge is that of “eternal security.” Popularly, it is called the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. If a person believes that a “truly saved” person will inevitably and assuredly persevere to the end, then how should one respond to a warning against apostasy? Most handle such passages as being hypothetical scenarios or warnings directed at people who only seem to be believers. In either case, the warnings do not truly apply to those of genuine conviction and faith. An examination of the text is in order to determine whether or not these conceptions are faithful to the intention of the author.
Three questions must be answered from the context of these passages in order to come to a satisfactory conclusion regarding these passages:
1. To whom is the author addressing his comments?
2. Does the passage in question deal with apostasy at all?
3. What is the consequence of not heeding the warning?
These three questions will guide this reflection on each of the aforementioned passages.

A Look at the Relevant Passages in Hebrews

In the first passage, 2:1-4, the author warns that “we must give more earnest heed to the things we have heard.” This answers the first question as to whom the author addresses. Evidently, he speaks to a group in which he includes himself. Certainly, the pronoun “we” excludes the idea that he is only speaking to false converts.

The second question is not so easy to answer in this passage, but there are certainly clues for guidance. The warning is that the inevitable result of ignoring what we have learned is that we will drift away or that something will pass us by. Is it blessing that will pass us by, or is it salvation itself?

It has been suggested that the thing that passes beyond the hope of those who fail to give heed to the teaching is much like the blessing that passed the Israelites by when they refused to enter the Promised Land. The context of the passage, however, argues against such an interpretation. First, it is difficult to imagine that the neglect of the doctrine of the Deity and Lordship of Jesus Christ is such that one would only miss out on temporal blessings. This is the explicit teaching that immediately precedes 2:1-4. Secondly, the author frames the inevitable judgment in light of the breaking of the commandments of God given at Mt. Sinai; it is not immediately obvious or necessary that he refers to the refusal to cross Jordan. Finally, the warning is not to reject “so great a salvation,” not such an opportune blessing. The better understanding is that the author is warning the church against abandoning the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ.

The consequence of neglecting this warning is that the believer will drift away from the truth of the faith and be subject to severe judgment. By comparison, the one who loses these key doctrines will face a more terrible judgment than those who received the law from Mt. Sinai. The news received by the Church was heralded by Christ, the apostles, and by the signs and gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is a far greater privilege than Israel received at Sinai, and consequently, ignoring such revelation will have a greater penalty.

The second passage under consideration is 3:12-19. Once again, it is evident that the author means the warning to be carefully received by all when he warns the “brethren” to beware. Possibly, the author simply refers to his Jewish brethren but not the entire Church, but this would make the warning nearly inapplicable to a modern Gentile audience. The better understanding then is to take the warning as meant for all the brothers and sisters of the author, and not just limit the understanding to early ethnic Israel.

The second question is easier to answer in this passage. Explicitly, the warning is against departing from the Living God, which is in itself the essence of apostasy. Each believer is to examine himself in order to be certain that an evil heart of unbelief does not disqualify them from entering God’s rest.

The consequence of ignoring this warning is that one will fail to enter into God’s rest. The example of not entering God’s rest is drawn from Israel’s failure to cross the Jordan. Is it, then, that the Christian will fail to enter a life of abundance if they fail to believe, as did Israel? After all, it is certainly possible, if not probable, that those who refused to cross into Canaan still went to heaven when they died.

There are several difficulties with understanding this section to speak of only missing out on an abundant Christian life. First, the author has consistently argued from the lesser to the greater throughout the book of Hebrews. Here, the promised rest that Israel missed is of a lesser importance than the rest that Christians will miss if they depart from God. The rest of God that is applicable to Christians lies in partaking of Christ through faith (3:14). Further, the great fault of Israel did not lie in their refusal to cross the Jordan; it was in their unbelief (3:19). The failure to move into the Promised Land was symptomatic of an underlying faith problem. Therefore the warning applies to those who will not abide in Christ by faith, and by such faithlessness they demonstrate that they have not become partakers in Him. This passage calls for sober reflection from everyone who believes themselves to be Christians to see whether or not they yet believe in Christ as their rest in God.

Hebrews 6:4-12 is the most famous, if not the most difficult, of all the warning passages in Scripture for those who hold to eternal security. In this section, the author stacks up words that could seemingly only be true of a genuinely converted individual. He speaks of those who have been “enlightened,” who have “tasted the heavenly gift,” and who “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” Southern Baptists who have not been troubled by this passage are those who have not troubled to read it!

Significantly, this is the first warning passage that does not include the use of a first person pronoun. The author does not include himself in this group as he did in the previous passages. Implicitly, it seems that the writer knows that he is not included in the group described, and if it is possible for him, then it would certainly be possible for those who have a similar faith.

As comforting as that may seem, it still does not nullify the strong language of this passage nor answer the question of whom the author speaks. Whoever these people are, they have certainly partaken of the Holy Spirit. This statement alone urges the reader to carefully consider that they could be in the group that may “fall away.” The term “falling away” is only used in this passage in the New Testament, but some uses in the Septuagint help to shed light on how the word was used. It is found in Ezekiel 14:13; 18:24, and 20:27. Each time it is a marked and purposeful unfaithfulness to God. It seems then that the English term “falling away” is somewhat misleading, as it indicates something that may happen by accident. Instead, this word describes a sort of rebellious unfaithfulness that could not be accomplished without high-handed defiance.

The one in danger of committing this apostasy is one who has partaken of the Holy Spirit and yet neglected the doctrines of the faith. This passage immediately follows a discussion that begins in 5:11 concerning the hardness of heart and laziness concerning the studiousness of his readers. A lazy disciple may become a faithless disciple.

The consequences of such apostasy are horrendous. Such a one cannot be restored to repentance and put the Son of God to open shame. There is no more gospel for such a person. Thankfully, it is evident that such a person is already so hardened that no warning would pierce their apathy and faithlessness. If one is worried that they may fall into this category that is hope enough that one has not.

Though chapter six may get the most attention, 10:26-31 may be the most difficult. The author returns to the usage of the first person. Unless he uses the first person rhetorically, then it is nearly impossible to regard this passage as applying only to false believers. Further, the ones being warned are those who have been sanctified by the blood of the covenant. Such language can only be understood as referring to a true believer.

To hold to the idea that the author uses “we” rhetorically, one can appeal to 10:39 in which the author expresses confidence that “we” are not such people that draw back to perdition. Secondly, one must understand the blood of the covenant as being that which sanctified Jesus, not each believer in this context. While possible, the immediate context mitigates against this latter interpretation. In 10:19, it is the believer that is able to enter “the Holiest” by the blood of Jesus. It is awkward at best to regard the blood of Jesus as being the instrument of His own sanctification.

The sin of this passage is one of willful and deliberate sinning. Apostasy certainly falls into this category. Though apostasy may not be the only possible understanding here, the sinning spoken of is not accidental or done with remorse. It is purposeful, and seemingly spiteful faithlessness to the demands of Jesus Christ.

The repercussion for such obstinate sinning is experiencing God’s vengeance. The picture painted by the author is one of impending doom and utmost horror. Such a one will “fall into the hands of the living God,” a more terrifying image could hardly have been conjured by the author. If mere temporal punishment were in mind, it would not be cause for such awful language.

The final passage, 12:14-29, compares the one who forsakes the admonishment of the gospel to the godless and profane Esau, who lost the blessing of God for a bowl of soup. Again, the writer does not use the 1st person pronoun, but the warning applies to “anyone” who might fall short of God’s grace. There is no reason for this warning to be dismissed by any believer as “non-applicable.”

In this passage, the warning is against coming short of God’s grace by refusal to live according to the holiness brought about by faith. Such a life will inevitably produce quarrelsome behavior and bitterness of heart. This is, again, obstinate behavior and no accidental occurance.

The punishment for not heeding the warning is a little more suspect in this passage than in previous ones. Here, the author uses Esau as an example. Did Esau miss out on eternal life because of his carnality, or did he simply lose the right of the firstborn? The language used to describe Esau, unfortunately for him, seems to describe the former. He is called “profane” and a “fornicator.” Much like chapter six, the loss the apostate experiences is beyond recall.

Personal Reaction and Conclusion

To anyone who holds to the understanding of “eternal security,” the book of Hebrews is a challenge. The text indicates that apostasy is a frightening possibility, and that once one becomes apostate, there is no hope of return to the faith. This condition of hardness of heart will not be overcome.

The burning question that must be answered is whether or not a true believer can lose their salvation. The answer, according to Hebrews, is that they certainly can if they lose faith and cease to be a believer. Though this proposition is true, it is still the case that none of the elect of God will ever ultimately lose faith and become apostate, and oddly enough, it seems that the warning passages ensure this very result.

Most evangelicals agree that the preaching of the gospel is absolutely necessary for someone to come to Christ. One must read the Bible, hear a radio broadcast, or hear a witness concerning the truth of the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in order to be saved. This is the driving force behind the Great Commission.

Yet, the Bible is equally clear that there will be a certain number of people in heaven, for John saw them there in the revelation that God gave him (Revelation 5:8-14). Further, Jesus assured His disciples that He would certainly raise up all that the Father gave to Him on the last day (John 6:39). So how is it that this certain number of people, whose salvation is contingent on hearing the gospel, will certainly be saved through hearing it?

God ordained that all should be saved through the hearing of the gospel, that is held by many without question. Could it not be true then that the means of keeping them in the faith is by warning them not to abandon what they heard? An illustration may help to draw the parallel.

We know that the Apostle John was given a vision of heaven by God, and in that vision He saw a multitude of the redeemed worshipping Christ. Now let’s say in that crowd he saw a man named Joe India. Joe India, in the future, will assuredly be in heaven because John saw him there. Yet right now, Joe India is living in a slum in Bombay and he has never heard the gospel. In fact, Joe is currently a happy Hindu. Without John’s vision, most would conclude that Joe is heading for hell separated from God. But the John’s vision tells us that he will be in heaven. Therefore, we conclude that Joe will definitely hear the gospel and that he will believe it. But he must hear it; he will not be in heaven otherwise.

After Joe hears the gospel and believes, he begins to get lazy concerning the faith. He even begins seeing a woman who is not his wife, and he is sorely tempted to return to idol worship. How will Joe be rescued from apostasy? Someone must give him a stern and genuine warning. Even though John saw him in heaven, and even though he is a believer, if Joe is not warned he is doomed, just as he would have been doomed if he had never heard the gospel at all.

In the end, then, the warnings of the passages in Hebrews are a means to keep the believer in the faith just as the gospel was the means to bring the believer to the faith. Therefore, the warnings are real, they are directed to the believer, but they will inevitably work for his or her good just as they are designed to do. The warnings, for the believer, are an irresistible grace. This explanation takes seriously the warnings, and indeed it makes them absolute necessities. It is also faithful to the doctrine of eternal security in that the warnings will succeed in every believer to keep them in the faith.