Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Macarthur's "The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness" - Part III

After laying the groundwork of the Atonement as the basis for our unmerited forgiveness, Macarthur opens his chapter "Just as God Has Forgiven You" by using the December 1997 Heath High School shooting in Kentucky as an example of Christians extending unilateral, Christ-like forgiveness. For those who may not remember, the Paducah students were meeting for prayer in a school corridor when a fourteen-year-old freshman opened fire, killing three students and seriously wounding five more. Macarthur notes that many of the survivors and families of victims expressed forgiveness and no desire for vengeance, including a girl with a severed spinal cord who sent the following message from her hospital bed: "Tell him [the assailant] I forgive him."

This is unquestionably a case of Christ-like behavior on the part of those injured, but it was an interesting example for Macarthur to choose. A different aspect of the story undermines a condition for forgiveness, and was, in fact, unscriptural.

Not long after the shooting, I remember reading an article in the Reader's Digest questioning the validity of the outpouring of forgiveness at the school following the murders. The author, an Orthodox Jew, made the valid point that the students immediately hanging up posters and signs in the high school proclaiming "We Forgive You" actually had no right to do so - the crime had not been against them. Furthermore, he asserted, it is not in God's nature to let such a gross crime and unrepentant killer go unpunished (God is an avenger of injustice). If there were to be forgiveness, he contended, it could only be extended by the victims or families of the casualties themselves.

That Jewish journalist was absolutely right.

Macarthur lays out situations under which unconditional forgiveness is not appropriate, or even possible biblically. He writes:

There are times when it is necessary to confront an offender. In such cases, unconditional forgiveness is not an option. These generally involve more serious sins - not petty or picayune complaints, but soul-threatening sins or transgressions that endanger the fellowship of saints. In such situations Luke 17:3 applies: "If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him." In such cases, if a brother or sister in Christ refuses to repent, the discipline process outlined in Matthew 18 applies...."Some take the position that this [Eph. 4:32 & Col. 3:13] teaches forgiveness should always be conditional. Their rationale goes like this: God forgives only those who repent. Therefore, if we are going to forgive in the same manner as we have been forgiven, we should withhold forgiveness from all who are unrepentant. Some fine teachers hold this view. For example, Jay Adams writes:

'It should go without saying that since our forgiveness is modeled after God's (Eph. 4:32), it must be conditional. Forgiveness by God rests on clear, unmistakable conditions. The apostles did not merely announce that God had forgiven men...Paul and the apostles turned away from those who refused to meet the conditions, just as John and Jesus did earlier when the scribes and Pharisees would not repent.' (page 34)

"There is some merit in Adam's position. There are times when forgiveness must be conditional, and we shall discuss that issue before the close of this chapter." (see below)

"I have great respect for Adams and have recommended his book on forgiveness as a helpful study on the subject. On this issue, however, I must disagree with the position he takes. To make conditionality the gist of Christlike forgiveness seems to miss the whole point of Scripture. When Scripture instructs us to forgive in the manner we have been forgiven, what is in view is not the idea of withholding forgiveness until the offender expresses repentance."

Glenn wrote in last week's combox (in response to the above - I'm re-posting the quote in full): I agree with Adams' stance, especially in view of the Luke passage where Jesus say "IF" your brother repents then you are to forgive him. I don't think we are precluded from forgiven an unrepentant person, but I also don't think we are required to forgive someone who is not remorseful. For example, everyone says to forgive the 9/11 terrorists, but they wouldn't even seek forgiveness had they lived.

Absolutely "forgiving" the 9/11 terrorists falls outside the biblical parameters, for several of the reasons listed below. On top of everything else, this was a matter of criminal law and the courts have the God-ordained authority to sentence them. However, generally these aren't the types of situations where we're tempted to be unforgiving.

Macarthur spends a full chapter discussing church discipline, emphasizing that it should always be done in love and seeking to restore the wayward Christian - it is not punitive or vengeful. I don't want to spend time discussing the church discipline process, except to add that I completely agree with it, and if it were done correctly there would be fewer lukewarm believers and scandals in churches. However, for the purposes of this series on forgiveness, I'd rather focus on the interpersonal implications. So here are some guidelines for when confrontation is necessary, and things must be set right for forgiveness to be extended:

- If you observe a serious offense that is a sin against someone other than you, confront the offender. Justice does not permit a Christian to cover a sin against someone else. I can unilaterally and unconditionally forgive a personal offense when I am the victim, because it is I who then bears the wrong. But when I see that someone else has been sinned against, it is my duty to seek justice. (Exodus 23:6; Deut. 16:20; Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 59:15-16; Jeremiah 22:3; Lam. 3:35-36.

- When ignoring an offense might hurt the offender, confrontation is required. (Gal. 6:1-2).

- When a sin is scandalous or otherwise potentially damaging to the Body of Christ, confrontation is essential. (Hebrews 12:15).

- When there is a broken relationship between Christians, both parties have a responsibility to seek reconcilliation (Luke 17:3; Matt. 5:23-24).
Again, Macarthur emphasizes that Christians should be prepared to suffer wrong rather than cause reproach. Most of the cases where we are unforgiving are over personal affronts and hurt feelings; not over matters of eternal significance. (This theme resonated with me - this is the type of unforgiveness I'm prone to carry). Even knowing that the offender must ultimately repent to get right with God, in view of the enormous grace poured out on us, we should be ready to lay aside our grudges and "starve" those bitter feelings - even without a formal declaration of repentance. Confronting every little thing (even repeat offenses) will cause more relational problems than it will solve - just think of this dynamic in a marriage. ("Honey, you left your socks on the floor again. That's the third time this week. You need to repent and seek my forgiveness.")

When I think of a gracious response and the ultimate "covering" (as opposed to confrontation), I recall Christ's first post-resurrection words to the disciples in the Upper Room, after they had all left Him high and dry: "Peace be with you." (If someone pulled a stunt like that on me, you'd better believe they'd be hearing about it!) Although the disciples were certainly repentant, we have no reason to believe Jesus brought up their cowardice to shame or confront them. He graciously forgave and instantly restored. THAT is to be our model, insofar as it depends on us (Romans 12:18).

I have deliberately not given details about my own struggle with unforgiveness, as to do so would violate the very principles I am trying to follow. I will admit it is a long-term issue, with my parents, neither of whom has trusted Christ. I'll also add that no laws were broken - and there are no tangible losses or fraud. So it's the type of thing covered by the "covering principle". In addition, when dealing with non-Christians, we cannot hold them to the standards of believers - they simply don't know any better, lacking the illumination of the Holy Spirit. As for unbelievers' rejection of the Gospel, ultimately they will each answer to God for that - but consider this: it is often our kindness and unconditional love that God uses to draw them to the Savior. Is it not possible that Christ's words from the Cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing," (Luke 23:34) stunned and softened the hearts of the soldiers and enraged crowd (many of whom repented and were saved 7 weeks later, on Pentecost)? Could not Stephan's amazing plea in Acts 7:60 "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" so impressed the compliciant Saul that he later would recall what selfless forgiveness looked like? Undeserved forgiveness - when we willingly give up our "rights" for Christ's sake - is often a way in which God will glorify Himself. In his sermon "Forgiveness Made Easy", Spurgeon declares:
“Brother, the most splendid vengeance you can ever have is to do good to them who do you evil, and to speak well of them who speak ill of you. They will be ashamed to look at you; they will never hurt you again if they see that you cannot be provoked except to greater love and larger kindness.”
“Self-pity is an act of sinful pride. The wounded ego that cannot rise above an offense is the very antithesis of Christlikeness." (Macarthur, p. 168) “Forgiveness frees us from the bitter chains of pride and self-pity.” (citing Joseph’s reaction to his brothers) Satan takes advantage of an unforgiving spirit and “devours” people. Sometimes, believers rationalize their unforgiving spirit over relatively minor offenses by reasoning that God (who hates injustice) would never want them to suffer injury and forgive offender unconditionally. But Christ had another point of view for His followers: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first....No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." (John 15:18, 20).

Sin is an attack on the moral government of God; not just a personal affront. Yet Christ Himself was willing to lay aside His right to vengeance (the only One who truly had a claim to justice) on Calvary. Although He never relinquished His deity, He deferred judgment in order to glorify God - through some of them repenting and coming to salvation. That's the perfect model right there (and we endure far less injustice than the Lord did in His suffering). Spurgeon says, in the same message:
“And this forgiveness on God’s part was most free. We did nothing to obtain it by merit, and we brought nothing wherewith to purchase it. He forgave us for Christ’s sake, not for aught that we had done. True, we did repent, and we did believe, but He gave us repentance and faith, so that He did not forgive us for the sake of them, but purely because of His own dear love, because He delights in mercy and is never more like Himself than when He forgives transgression, inequity, and sin.”

Repeat Offenders - Enough is Enough!

I don't know that I've ever had someone sin against me and then come back contrite, only to do it all over again....but hypothetically speaking, how would I react? As a former addict (set free only by the sheer grace of God, I might add), I have been on the receiving end of this kind of mercy myself, and therefore can easily concur with Macarthur on this point:

“Someone might ask, ‘Who in the world would commit the same offense seven times in one day and then profess repentance after each time? Here’s the point: this sort of behavior is precisely how we sin against God. We sin; then we express sorrow for our sin and seek God’s forgiveness; then we turn around and commit precisely the same sin again. Anyone who has ever been in bondage to a sinful habit knows precisely what the routine is like.

Does God forgive under such circumstances? Yes, He does. And since His forgiveness sets the criterion by which we are to forgive, the standard is set blessedly high. What may seem at first like an impossibly unfair and unattainable standard is in fact wonderful news for anyone who has ever needed to seek the forgiveness of God for repeat offenses. Jesus is teaching here that the forgiveness we extend to others should be as boundless as the mercy of God we desire for ourselves. That shatters all the limits anyone would try to place on human forgiveness.” (page 102).

Jesus understood and seemed to be alluding to the human propensity to want mercy for ourselves, but judgment for others. Hence His warning,“by the same measure you judge, you will be judged”.

Towards the end of the book, Macarthur devotes a chapter to the blessings of forgiveness, although as stated at the beginning, emotional benefits to the obedient servant should not be the focal point of forgiving one another - submission to an all-holy God is the issue. He attributes all kinds of physical/social problems in an individual to unforgiveness, which he compares to "a toxin". Macarthur candidly states that most of the counseling cases he has seen are related in some way to unforgiveness in the life of the counselee. Lastly, before an excellent appendix on correct understanding of the Atonement (why the Ranson and Governmental Theories are heretical), Macarthur includes a chapter entitled "Answering Hard Questions About Forgiveness." He deals with queries such as "what is the difference between true repentance and a mere apology?" (genuine repentance entails an admission of wrongdoing and a plea for forgiveness); "To whom should we confess our sins?" (to God and the affected person or people); "should I confess my affair to my wife?" (yes); and "how should we handle repeat offenses?" (read Luke 17:3-4).

Quite honestly, I was a bit disappointed in this last chapter, as none of the questions seemed particularly "hard" to me and he just covered the same ground Jay Adams had in "From Forgiven to Forgiving". I could think of MUCH harder questions about forgiveness to ask, but fortunately the Bible (and Macarthur's helpful exposition of key passages and principles) has helped me to answer them on my own. For tomorrow's closing on this subject, I'll post the references listed on NANC's worksheet on forgiveness, which helped shed some light on how far we're to go in pursuing Christ-honoring reactions. I hope that if you spend some time studying the gravity of unforgiveness and the depths to which the Lord went to forgive us, you will appreciate His gift of grace anew and be more eager to release any anger and bitterness affecting your walk.

Freedom and Power of Forgiveness - Part II

Picking up from where I left off last night, let's continue with a biblical look at horizontal forgiveness ("forgiving one another, just as in Christ God has forgiven you", Eph. 4:32). As "coincidence" would have it, Ephesians 4:29-32 was my memory passage the week before last, so I've been considering both the vertical (God to us) and horizontal (us to others) ramifications of forgiveness.

Reader Dani'El has left me the perfect starting point in the the combox of yesterday's entry: "Beyond being obedient, or being painfully aware of the huge debt that was forgiven me by God, I've learned that forgiveness can be done for purely selfish reasons. To be free of anger, simply to be free of it, for yourself."

Thank you for raising that point, as it's one that both Macarthur and Jay Adams in "From Forgiven to Forgiving" touch upon. Prevailing "wisdom" in the Church today maintains that forgiveness is "a gift you give yourself" (Joyce Meyer et. al.) and is for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver. While it's true that emotionally one will have an easier time if he/she is not nursing a grudge or cultivating bitterness, that is NOT the primary reason we are called to forgive. So what IS the impetus to be lavishly forgiving? Because God said so. He lays it on as a command.

When wrestling with my doubts, rebellion and justification of withholding forgiveness, I had to come to grips with a question: Is Jesus the boss of me? Do I want to obey Him, simply because He is Lord and He alone is worthy, or don't I? The answer is a resounding "yes". My life is not my own. He is my Lord, He is Lord of all, and I willingly and joyfully submit to His authority. Whatever He says to do, I have to do it. You see, to make forgiveness into something we do to bless ourselves is to undermine the authority of God in our lives. It is to downplay the sovereignty of Christ. Turning a God-ordained command into a suggestion for feeling good about ourselves (self-esteem gospel, anyone?) is to cultivate a humanistic, man-centered outlook rather than a Christ-centered one. Adams, in particular, attacks the notion that we extend forgivness to benefit ourselves. Again, let's start from this premise: God commanded us to forgive. God's in charge; not us. Therefore we do what He says and forgive.

When you resolve in your heart to obey God and forgive, don't feel badly if you lack warm fuzzy feelings for your nemesis; just resolve in your heart to let the offense go and allow God to deal with both him and you. It is important not to let bitterness grow. Forgiveness is not a feeling – it is a deliberate choice that runs counter to our bitter feelings, which tell us to dwell on an offense.

Wow, six paragraphs in and I haven't even gotten into specifics of the book yet. Let's start with this quote: “For a Christian to be willfully unforgiving is unthinkable. We who have been forgiven by God Himself have no right to withhold forgiveness from our fellow sinners.” (p. 97) Macarthur then devotes 10 pages to exegeting the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-27). The point of that parable is the infinite enormity of our sin debt to God, how the "debt" our fellow sinners "owe" us pales in comparison, and how we are to reflect the King's gracious character out of sheer gratitude. Since God's judicial forgiveness iis not conditional upon a sinner's subsequent behavior (He does not "withdraw" salvation), the severity of the king's punishment here actually illustrates how God will discipline unforgiving believers. "Though the guilt of sin is forgiven so that it will never be an issue in eternal judgment, God may permit the consequences of sin to be even more severe, in order to motivate a sinning believer to obey. Because unforgivingness is so completely foreign to what Christians should be, Christ applies this threat particularly to that sin (v. 35)." Scripture upholds that God does, indeed, discipline as sons those He loves.

Here are my notes on that chapter:

Parable of unforgiving servant – “10,000” (talents) – derived from same word in Greek as “myriad” – expresses idea of incalculable debt. Underscores infinite amount of debt, as in our sin-debt to God. We can’t repay it. King’s reaction = the very picture of what God does on behalf of every sinner who repents. When we realize the enormity of our debt, the hopelessness of our true spiritual condition before the King, the only appropriate response is to do as the servant did – fell prostrate before the king, in desperate plea for mercy (which neither he, nor we, deserve). King elevates him to position of unmerited favor (this is definition of grace).

So…unforgiveness of others represents lack of appreciation, an awareness of what we’ve truly been forgiven. We underestimate our own enormous debt to God, freely and compassionately forgiven, by “choking and demanding” our fellow sinners repay us. By world’s standards, we do have a legitimate and rightful claim on what is “owed” us. Forgiveness makes no sense. But when we really see ourselves as the first servant, guilty of an infinitely more grave debt to the King, debts against us pale in comparison. It’s when we move away from the feet of the King – or the foot of the Cross – that the unforgiving, fleshly spirit which demands it’s “rights” to restitution sneaks in. Scripture makes clear that God takes this seriously.

This grace from God should make us “profoundly grateful, and also profoundly merciful” (p. 106) “In effect, the unforgiving servant had placed himself above the king”.

“God Himself will employ harsh measures when necessary to correct a disobedient Christian. The harshness of His discipline is a measure of His love for His people and His concern for their purity.” The “torturers” = rod of God’s discipline. Lesson of parable: Christians who refuse to forgive others will be subject to the severest form of discipline until they learn to forgive as they have been forgiven. (pp. 110-111)

“Christians who fail to show mercy will be subject to divine chastisement without much mercy. That is the whole message of this parable. I am convinced that multitudes of Christians who suffer from stress, depression, discouragement, relationship problems, and all sorts of other hardships experience these things because of a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness from the heart would liberate the person immediately from such “torturers” – and glorify God in the process.” (P. 112)

Now we need to tackle perhaps the toughest issue, and the one that was the biggest obstacle to me: biblically, do we need to forgive when the offender does not repent? In a sense, yes; although there are certain situations where unconditional/unilateral forgiveness is not possible. Macarthur and Adams somewhat differ on this point, as Adams views forgiveness as a bi-lateral transaction of sorts. He contends that "forgive as you have been forgiven" indicates that without repentance, no forgiveness can take place (no one would argue that repentance is a condition to our receiving God's mercy and divine forgiveness). However, Macarthur points out that the point of that command, as well as similar exhortations throughout the entirety of Scripture, is to be lavish and abundant in our forgiving (as our Father is), and thus glorify God. Furthermore, he points out, “covering another’s transgression is the very essence of forgiveness.” (p. 121). Mark 11:25-26 speaks of immediate, unilateral forgiveness – no formal meeting/transaction required. As Bill Fields writes, "God does NOT forgive where there is no repentance but God does show common grace and mercy as HE invites sinners to HIM through Godly repentance."

This is probably the most difficult aspect of forgiveness to accept and allow to manifest in our lives - at least to me it is. However, Scripture makes it clear that it is better to suffer a wrong patiently for the sake of righteousness than to exact re-payment. Before reading these two books, I was convicted on this point from a NANC worksheet that listed all the verses dealing with anger, forgiveness, and how we are to relate to other people (believers as well as non). Although the word "forgiveness" does not appear in many of them, it is abundantly clear from the wording how God expects us to treat our enemies - with love and forbearance. (I will list the references separately, as some of you may want to do your own study/devotional on this subject).

The main difference between John Macarthur and Jay Adams' view of forgiveness is that Macarthur believes, in the majority of cases, the Christ-like standard compels us to forgive unconditionally whether the offender repents or not. He is careful to explain that the offender is still under God's judgment, as all sin is ultimately against God; but we are expected to relinquish him or her in our own hearts.

Macarthur points out that usually offenses are injurious to our pride and are personal disputes that an outsider might consider petty. Sometimes, particularly in the Body, it is necessary to confront in love, but in Macarthur's view the vast majority of times confrontation is neither necessary nor desirable. The Bible urges us to "cover in love" such occasions. Jay Adams, the founder of the nouthetic counseling movement, takes a slightly different stance. He points to the Matthew 18 process as a standard for interpersonal confrontation (Macarthur says it relates primarily to the church discipline process) and believes loving confrontation followed by sincere repentance is a prerequisite to forgiving.

To be sure, while Adams contends that true forgiveness cannot take place until there is repentance (and it is technically not possible for a non-Christian to repent), the "to forgive or not to forgive?" question almost becomes a matter of semantics, because nowhere does he advocate shunning or mistreating an offender. Nor does he rationalize holding onto a grudge, nursing bitterness, or repaying in kind. To do so would, of course, be patently unbiblical. So, while he dismisses apologies as meaningless and precludes true (horizontal) forgiveness from the unrepentant, he would agree that we are to love our enemies and do good to those that hurt us. On the surface, his "formula" seemed like a good loop-hole - I 'don't hafta' forgive, as the offenders are unrepentant - riddle me this: how, exactly, do we love on the offender, do good to him or her, while refusing to allow resentment to take root in our heart, while NOT forgiving? Sounds pretty much like forgiveness to me, even if Adams chooses not to call it such. No matter how you slice it (and we are using the Sword - the Word of God to do the slicing), we cannot get around our call to love, pray for, and refuse to hharbor ill will towards those who hurt us.

Glenn left a great comment in the "To Give You Pause" combox this week, which I've been itching to respond to. I'll pick it up there tomorrow, and lay out the circumstances where unconditional forgiveness does not apply. However, since most offenses we have to deal with are of the personal variety, I felt it important to discuss why God gives us no justification for being unforgiving over such affronts. (Even the "eye for an eye" command was given to prevent civic justice from becoming excessive; it was later perverted to apply to cases of personal vengeance. It was this misapplication that Jesus was addressing in Matthew 5:38 when He laid down the Law of love).

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness - John Macarthur

Unforgiveness is a serious sin. I'll come back to that in a moment.

I have just finished reading John Macarthur's book on forgiveness, along with several appendixes and sermons on the subject by Charles Spurgeon and Alexander MacLaren. Over the past month, God has brought conviction and renewal as I've learned to surrender this "holdout" in my heart to His Lordship. For many years, I have justified holding on to a "right" to being unforgiving because the abuser never repented (even when confronted). In a sense, I have been held prisoner to this un-Christlike bondage in my own heart. I am not naive enough to think this struggle will never pop up again in my totally depraved heart, but God in His infinite patience has given me a clarity of thought and heartfelt motivation to obey Him completely in this area through the counsel of a godly woman and writings such as Macarthur's book.

This will not be a typical book review, as I'd like to get into some of the topics Macarthur brings up in a bit more depth and compare/contrast his views to what other Bible teachers have to say. As always, our ultimate authority is to be the Scripture, and fortunately hermeneutics is an area in which Macarthur excells. Most applicable to any discussion on biblical forgiveness is the Synthetic Principle - reminding us that Scripture must always be interpreted in light of other Scripture. This point is key when discussing a matter such as forgiveness, as cherry-picking verses from here and there can give us a skewed view of God's will. The Grammatical and Literal Principles become non-issues here: Christ literally wants us to forgive. He answered the question of who our "neighbor" is; the term "enemy" needs little elaboration.

The Historical Principle is largely irrelevant also, as unforgiveness and the human desire for vengeance is an age-old scourge - as much a part of our fleshly nature as it was 2,000 years ago. The Practical Principal is the one we will need to look at in the most detail, after laying the groundwork for the basis on which we have been forgiven. This will probably comprise several posts, as I'd really like to dig in and transparently share what God's been teaching me in this area. Once the posts pass the 2,000 woord mark, eyes start to glaze over!

In the first chapter, Macarthur lays out the truths of God's mercy and justice as great virtues, and how through the Atonement both are satisfied. This is presumably not new to his readers, but it is impossible to get an accurate view of just how much we've been forgiven without looking at divine redemption. As Jerry Bridges writes elsewhere, 'sin is cosmic treason' and we are accountable to a thrice-holy God. Unable to seek God on our own initiative, God initiates and obtains the sinner's reconciliation, while extending the offer to all. Admitedly, Macarthur is more staunchly Calvinist than I (try as I might, I cannot become a true 5-pointer; it seems somewhat unbalanced to emphasize Romans 8:30 to the expense of Acts 2:2, John 5:40 and 2 Peter 3:9). It was very tempting to get caught up in the mental gymnastics of monergism vs. synergism once again, but the best explanation I've heard so far is that it is a mystery how our will works within the confines of God's sovereignity. He elects and calls and does all of the saving; we are responsible for our own response and repentance. He gets all the glory, as repentance is a gift freely given anyway.

God has laid out very specific commands to His children in His Word, and understanding the nuances of Limited Atonement, fortunately, isn't one of them. However, if we accept so great a salvation as fact, talking doctrine will get us nowhere in a hurry. Applying it (namely, forgiving as we've been forgiven) is a must. And NO, I'm not saying sound doctrine doesn't matter - it's crucial. But the main reason it is so important that we be doctrinally sound is so we can BE the salt and light God requires, from a heart that is pure, undeceived, and fully devoted to following Christ.

1 Peter 2:24 reminds us that God has redeemed us in order that we may live righteously. In view of this, and in light of the substitutionary atonement (linger at the Cross), unforgiveness = extreme ingratitude. My words; not Macarthur's. In fact, I will probably quote him extensively as I write this series, but mostly the impressions God laid on my heart were insights into the deeper application of the truth he lays out. After discussing imputation (God put Christ's righteousness to our credit), he states: "That means our forgiveness is not dependent on some prior moral reform on our part. Every believer is forgiven immediately, just like the thief on the Cross. No works of penance are necessary, no meritorious rituals. Forgiveness costs us nothing, because it already cost Christ everything."

He then goes on to explain how a true conversion will inevitably result in a changed life, as we are conformed to the image of Christ. The Bible makes no allowance for what's sometimes called "cheap grace", although naturally we still fall and require constant forgiveness. He discusses the need for ongoing forgiveness in light of 1 John 1:9 onward, .tThe difference between judicial forgiveness (when we come to God for salvation) and parental forgiveness (restoration of fellowship, the "foot washing" Christ discussed at the Last Supper) and the fact that God does discipline and even punish His children in love. The difference between God's wrath and fatherly displeasure should be apparent to the born-again believer, so I won't spend extra space on it.

“As Christians, we should be obsessed with forgiveness, not vengeance.” After making the case for how much and how unilaterally God has forgiven us, Macarthur makes this striking statement. Looking at the whole of Scripture - not just the New Testament - we see that it is better to suffer a wrong for righteousness' sake, not take offense, and be quick to forgive. Why? Because it is a reflection of the very heart of Christ, Who is One with the Father. “Whereas Abel’s blood (and the blood of other martyrs) screams for vengeance, Christ’s blood pleads for mercy.”

Forgiveness is not a feeling – it is a deliberate choice that runs counter to our bitter feelings, which tell us to dwell on an offense. Tomorrow I want to discuss when forgiveness should be instantaneous and unilateral, in what sense it applies to unbelievers, and what Matthew 18 and Luke 17 mean. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Centurion Strikes Again

More incidental words of wisdom from apologist par excellence Frank Turk, over at Pyro:

"...apologetics doesn't win people into Catholicism, and it doesn't win people out of Catholicism. I could give you 1000 reason why I think people join Catholicism -- but there is only one reason to leave -- and it's not because of an argument. The reason to leave Catholicism is actually foolishness when viewed by people seeking a reason: it's that Jesus Christ was crucified, and because death had no power to hold him, He was raised on the third day.

He didn't become bread. He didn't establish a home office in the city of Caesar. But know for certain that He is both Lord and Christ -- so repent and believe in Him.

That's the reason for the hope that lies within us, y'all."

(emphasis mine).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

To Give You Pause...

I just saw a front-page Yahoo news headline that made me chuckle: "Red Meat Raises Death Risk". The link to the article makes the scary new finding even more specific: "Lots of Red Meat Increases Mortality Risk".

Did you catch that? Eat lots of juicy filet mignons (like the portabello-and-roquefort topped one I enjoyed back in February) and someday, you run the risk of dying.

Huh. And here I was thinking that death was a done deal. You're born; being born implies a 100% fatality rate - even for the staunchest of vegans. Or did I miss something here?

I don't mean to sound flip as I write about a subject as serious as death (and good quality steaks). I just don't have a problem with my own mortality. As my Canadian-born pastor once said, "You're born; you grow up; you play hockey; you die." The question is not whether we will die, or even when, or from what (presumably eating too much roast beef is a major cause of death, albeit a pleasant one).

It's what you do to glorify God in the meantime that is the question.

Where we spend eternity should be settled. For those of us who have been born again, the prospect of physical death should hold no dread, but we should often consider how ready we are to face our Lord. Regeneration may be a present reality, but what are we doing with Christ's lordship in the day-to-day? What areas is He calling us to surrender that we're still holding onto? As a college Bible study leader of mine once asked, "Are you putting feet on your faith?" This is the whole message of the book of James - don't be just a hearer of the Word; be a doer of the Word.

The one thing I want to hear when I step into eternity is "Well done, good and faithful servant." This week, I have been having a great time with God - He has been bringing steady, gentle conviction (def.: constructive criticism from the sovereign hand of God). Does it surprise you that conviction feels great? It shouldn't. To me, the Holy Spirit's promptings have always been clear-cut proof that God cares. He's willing to step in and encourage, correct, and rebuke my ingrained habits when necessary. I've been thinking about my own walk lately, and how (much to my chagrin) God doesn't have me on the mission fields of Burma or Belarus. How, beyond teaching Bible studies and writing books, can anything I do possibly count for Him? As I wonder rhetorically whether I'd have the fortitude to die a martyr's death, I completely miss what it means to live for Christ.

One of my fellow bloggers posted a quote from a Puritan writer, to the effect that the fires of hell burn hotter for those who talk doctrine but don't do it. Frank Turk over at Pyromaniacs posted an entry that dealt with the fastidious way in which we theo-geeks will defend biblical interpretation and may be razor-sharp in our soteriology, but what is the Father looking at?

Do I really need to answer that question for you?

Currently, I am nearly finished with John Macarthur's book "Forgiveness", by far the best and most exhaustive book I have ever read on the subject. Macarthur deals head-on with some of the toughest questions about unilateral forgiveness ever posed, even devoting an entire chapter to the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (you don't need to know Greek to get the point). Despite (or perhaps because) forgiveness is my spiritual Achilles' heel, I tend to get caught up in the mental gymnastics of monergism vs. synergism he introduces in chapter one. Sometimes, my mind can be a concordance, but my heart is not a sanctuary.

God is changing that, and it is exciting. So freeing, and exhilerating to taste what grace can look like when you pour it out to others.

I am the type who would rather write a dissertation on the Doctrines of Grace than forgive an unbeliever who has reviled me. However, the longer I linger at the foot of the Cross, the more absurd that tendency seems. After expounding on the enormity of what Christ has done for us, Macarthur writes, "Christians should be obsessed with forgiveness; not vengeance." To allow my mind to go in it's natural direction (towards holding grudges) is to be totally unappreciative of my Savior's mercvy and love. It's unthinkable! Why prefer a pop theology quiz as entry to heaven when all He asks of us is to show grace in keeping with our Father's character?

I mention my battle with my own unforgiving nature as a prime example of what He wants me doing - right now. Do you have something in your life? Put aside the cliche question, "If you were to die tonight, how certain are you that you would go to heaven?" That question was settled upon your conversion - but don't get cocky. Let's think of a replacement question: "If you were to die tonight, how could you have better acted in faith, and what acts of righteousness will you have neglected that could have counted for eternity?" Or more simply, "How ready are you to meet Jesus?"

Not that we'll ever be perfectly ready, but Jesus has laid out His commands and expectations pretty clearly in His Word. (Recommended supplementary reading: John Piper's "What Jesus Demands from the World").

If you're continually walking by the Spirit, you don't have to worry about red meat doing you in.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


This is funny...especially for anyone who's ever visited a "seeker sensitive"-type church. (I saw Joel Osteen on TV once. I turned it off after about 10 minutes).

Barbara, you link to the greatest things on your blog. I can't believe I've never discovered Calvinist Cartoons.

UPDATE: It gets better. Read this satire "25 warning signs that you might be obsessing about Calvinism" over at Purgatorio! There are too many graphics to download in order to post it over here. I'm far too lazy (and the kiddies need breakfast).

#17: You hear a news story about some criminals being “reformed” and your first thought is to wonder how many criminals are arminians. ROFL!!

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Closer Look at Transubstantiation

by David E. Lister, published by Moriel Ministries (2002)

Transubstantiation is derived from the Latin term tansubsubstaniato, meaning ”change of substance”. This term was incorporated into the creed of the Forth Latern Council in A.D. 1215.

Transubstantiation is defined by the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent as follows: “By the consecration of the bread and wine, a conversion (or change) is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.”

The Catechism of the Council of Trent expands this belief by stating: “In this sacrament are contained not only the true body of Christ, and all the constituents of a true body, such as bones and sinews, but also Christ whole and entire”. It also explains, “Christ whole and entire, is contained, not only under either species, but also in each particle of the same species.” (Species = bread and wine)

The Church of Rome teaches that when the priest in the Mass blesses the bread, it is no longer bread but Jesus Christ himself and similarly the wine is Jesus Christ himself.

This poses a question. Has this Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation always been taught since the time of the Apostles? Has this doctrine that the bread and wine of communion actually transforms into the actual body of Christ, been understood and accepted by the early Christian laity and Apostles? In the book of Acts, Chapter 2, verse 42 and in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 10 verse 16, the term used for what we know as communion today was “breaking of bread.” The term communion seems to become the common vernacular by the Councils of Elura and Arles in A.D. 314 and again at Nice in A.D. 325. In A.D. 418, the term the Lord’s Supper is used in the notes from the Council of Carthage. Irenaeus used the term Oblation to agree with biblical terminology found in 1 Corinthians Ch. 11:20. Pliny uses the term Sacrament in a letter to Trajan and also to Tertullian and Cyprian. The original meaning of the term Eucharist, was simply thanksgiving and in this sense was used by Ignatius, Irenaeus, Origen and others. Justin Martyr, Origen, Eusebius and Chrysostom also call the communion ”Memorial”. The Latin terminology of the “Mass” originally signified the dismissal of a Church assembly. It then came to be applied to the assembly itself, as Eusebius uses it in his History of the Church, and from there it came to denote the Communion Service. It was not until Ambrose, that the term Mass was used to denote communion. At no time in the early history of the church was the doctrine of Transubstantiation used or employed to mean that the bread and wine turn into the body of Jesus. But we do know there seems to be an introduction of heresy that would affect how the Roman Catholic Church would eventually practice “communion,” in the 4th century when the queen of heaven, under the name of Mary, was beginning to be worshiped in the Christian Church, this ” unbloody sacrifice” was also brought in. Epiphanius states that the practice of offering and eating it began among the women of Arabia; and at that time it was well known to have been adopted from the Pagans. (Se Epiphanius, Adversus Hoereses, Vol.1 P 1054.)

With the passage of time and further introduction of pagan practices into Roman Catholicism, a friar named Anastatius, In A.D. 637, rejected the figurative language and employed the doctrine of ”Real Presence”. In A.D. 754, at the Council of Constantinople, John Damascene, a condemned image-worshipper wrote: “The bread and wine are supernaturally changed by the invocation and coming of the Holy Ghost into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and are not two, but one and the same… The bread and wine are not the type or the figure of the body and blood of Jesus Christ - ah, God forbid! - but the body itself of our Lord deified.” Pashus Radbert the Abbot of Corbie advanced this doctrine even further. In A.D. 818 he wrote a treatise, which finally overthrew both the Scriptural belief and the early church history. He stated, “What was received in the Sacrament is the same flesh as that which was born of the Virgin Mary, and which suffered death for us; and though the figure of bread and wine doth remain, yet you must absolutely believe that, after consecration, it is nothing but the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.” This doctrine was further developed and finally made a dogma by Pope Innocent III.

However, it was not without opposition from within the Roman Catholic Church that this doctrine came to pass. Pashus Radbert writes ”that there are many that in these mystical things are of another opinion.” Others who were against this doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church were Aefric, Abbot of Malmesbury (A.D.905) and Berengarius, Peter Lombard (A.D.1150) and Bede in the 8th Century. The early church fathers opposed this doctrine. They never acknowledged any change in the elements or believed in any corporal presence. Tertullian stated “Christ, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, made it His body by saying, “This is my body’, that is, the figure of my body.” Even Orgien, acknowledges “that they (bread and wine) are figures which are written in the sacred volumes; therefore as spiritual not as carnal, examine and understand what is said. For if as carnal you receive them, they hurt, not nourish you.” Both Cyril of Jerusalem and Eusebius of Caesarea denied Transubstantiation. Cyril stated, “Under the type of bread His body given unto thee, and under the type of wine His blood given unto thee.” Eusebius qualifies communion as “Christ Himself gave the symbols of the Divine ceremony to His own disciples that the image of His own body should be made. He appointed to use bread as a symbol of His own body.” Furthermore, supporters of Rome and the papacy suggested that “there was nothing in the Gospels that may enforce us to understand Christ’s words properly, yea, nothing in the text (’This is My body’) hinders but those words may as well be taken in a metaphysical sense, as the words of the Apostle, ‘the Rock was Christ’… That part, which the Gospel hath not expressed, viz., the conversion of the bread in the body and blood of Christ, we have received expressly from the Church.” Bellarmine, another Roman scholar admitted “there is no express place of Scripture to prove Transubstantiation without the declaration of the Church.”

Since Roman Catholic Church scholars cannot find a scriptural basis for this doctrine, is it any wonder that those who believe that the Bible is God’s word (and it is complete for instruction in life, doctrine and righteousness), also are unable to find a scriptural basis for Transubstantiation and therefore would reject it as a Truth from God and necessary for salvation. Therefore, as we have been given a sound mind and are instructed to search the scriptures to see what is true and then to hold fast to what is true, we find the doctrine of Transubstantiation illogical! The Lord Jesus at the Last Supper handed the broken bread to the apostles and stated, “This is my body”. However He was in his earthly body, 100 percent human. Yet this doctrine would destroy human nature by having the ability to be in multiple places at one time. Rome teaches that Christ is corporally on the altar but without any “accidents.” Accidents mean color, scent, form, and taste, the very things that make substances discernable. Yet again, we are to deny all logic and sensibility to believe that Christ is present upon the altar!

Christ warned that deceivers would come among us to deceive us and to tell us that He was here or there and that we were not to believe them. Christ also warned us that we were to be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees, those who teach the precepts of man as the doctrines of God. Again, Rome is at variance with it’s own scholars and the early church fathers, as it teaches a doctrine (Transubstantiation) from men as the precepts of God. With this unbiblical form of teaching in the Roman Catholic Church, is it any wonder that they end up perverting the sacrament of communion by withholding the communion cup from the laity. The Council of Constance in A.D.1414 first formalized this doctrine. Pope Innocent III formalized it later and pronounced it a doctrine and then The Council of Trent (1537) confirmed his heresy. Even though the Council of Constance freely admits, “that the cup was received by all in former times,” they nonetheless go ahead and destroy the sacrament, this precious sacrament that the Lord Jesus Christ himself gave to us. “Do this in remembrance of me”

If you are Roman Catholic, we would ask you to turn to the Holy Scriptures and re-read the passages that teach about this sacrament and see if you can find the doctrine of Transubstantiation without the filter of the Roman Catholic Church. May God open your eyes and may the scales fall from them in order that you may come to His table and enjoy this sacrament, both the bread and the wine, in truth. Then ask yourself can there be salvation in a communion in which it is declared to be a fundamental principle, that the Madonna is ” our greatest hope; yea, the SOLE GROUND OF OUR HOPE ”? (The language of the late Pope Gregory, which was substantially endorsed by the late Pontiff John Paul II). The time is come when charity to the perishing souls of men, hoodwinked by a Pagan priesthood, abusing the name of Christ, requires that the truth in this matter should be clearly, loudly, unflinchingly proclaimed.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Early Worship as Described in the Didache - circa 60 A.D.

"Unity which is obtained by the sacrifice of truth is worth nothing. It is not the unity that pleases God. The Church of Rome boasts loudly of a unity which does not deserve the name. It is unity which is obtained by taking away the Bible from the people, by gagging private judgment, by encouraging ignorance, by forbidding men to think for themselves"

J.C. Ryle's 'The Fallibility of Ministers'

Last summer, while I was interviewing my former pastor, Christo Kulichev, for Christianity Today, he reflected: "The problem is, Protestants here in Bulgaria don't know their own history." I believe the same is true of Protestant Christians world-wide. While many of us know the Bible very well, Church history and the background of key doctrinal positions is often not a field many have studied (with notable exceptions....see Pyro's website for some excellent resources and apologetics recommendations).

Recently, I was accused elsewhere on the web of ignorance - both of biblical theology and history. (NOT ignorance of the latest i-phones, quadratic quations, or what's happening on daytime TV, mind you - all of which would have been fair charges. Ignorance of Church history and the Bible. I swear I am not making this up.) When I stopped laughing, it occurred to me that several times in perhaps the last 3-4 months, I have had a Catholic tell me that the Inquisitions never happened. As far as I know, this is not official Vatican doctrine, although the Inquisition archives were sealed until 2004. One may as well deny that the Holocaust occurred. Or claim that the Armenian Genocide was a myth. To deny the horrifying reality of the papist Inquisitions is to be intellectually dishonest. Although the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century and beyond is the best known, there were four distinct Inquisitions spearheaded by the RCC - ranging from the Medieval Inquisition beginning in Southern France in the 12th century, to the Roman Inquisition that began in 1542. I hope to have time to devote a blog series to this ugly chapter of history, as the post-modernists seem to have abandoned the truth.

I am fortunate to have been a student of modern and medieval history since my undergraduate days at a secular university. In fact, ironically enough, it was there that I became a Christian. Most of my post-graduate research has been in the apologetics field, focusing on Church history from a Christian perspective (not your average History Channel and PBS nonsense!).

To be a student of history is, indeed, to cease to be a Romanist. The following is an overview (provided by several sources) of worship in the early Church, and how they viewed the Lord's Supper. This is a key difference between Catholics and Protestants, the latter of whom follow Scripture and the example of the earliest Church in their understanding of the sacrament.

Thanks to Fundamental Christian at onetruegod.com for some of the quotes.

The Roman Catholic church teaches that in the celebration of the Eucharist, the consecrated wafer and wine are miraculously changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus in a process they call transubstantiation. This doctrine was a fringe notion until the latter half of the 9th century, adamantly and specifically rejected by Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Eusebius, and unknown to the Church of the earliest centuries.

1413. By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity [cf. Council of Trent: DS 1640; 1651.].” Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)

"The Roman church would have the world believe she is not an innovator but, rather, continues to observe the religious practices of the primitive church, modified only as a more clear understanding of God’s sacred Scriptures and holy Tradition are attained. Or something like that. Is that really the way things are?

The centerpiece of the Catholic Mass is the Eucharistic sacrifice, a bloodless re-presentation of Christ’s atonement on the cross. The Catholic priest, or “alter Christus” commands the Son of God to come down from Heaven and assume the physical characteristics of a cracker and a cup of wine, that He might be consumed by the priest and the faithful. Other studies offered by Christian scholars and myself have fully addressed the Jewish rejection of human sacrifice, cannibalism and the consumption of blood, all of which practices fly in the face of God’s clear proscriptions. It is not my intention here to resurrect those arguments. Instead, I hope to examine how the early Christian commemoration of the Lord’s Supper was corrupted into today’s present Catholic practice."

Ever since Eusebius wrote the first major history of the Christian church, (see Neil's blog for a great review), people have tended to idealize the primitive church as a monolithic structure with a uniform pattern of worship. Recent research has shown that was far from the case. Converts to Christianity were drawn from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Lacking a strong central governing body, the various congregations developed individual worship practices and emphasized different areas of theology. It wasn’t until the 2nd Century that we begin to see the incipient development of uniformity.

In the Book of Acts and in Paul’s writing to the Corinthian church, we can get some idea of how the earliest followers of Christ celebrated the Lord’s Supper, but neither source provides much detail. Fortunately, there are other written records which help us to flesh out the bare bones of the biblical record. One of them, the Didache, was rediscovered in 1873. The Didache is a manual for church order and Christian living, probably written in Syria around 60 AD. In it, we have the earliest look, outside the New Testament, of the Eucharist celebration.

The Didache, which recommends praying the Lord’s Prayer thrice daily, provides a clear picture of how early Christians would gather on the Lord’s Day to “break bread and give thanks” an activity in which only baptized believers were to participate. The first activity of the day involved confessing their sins and reconciling themselves with their neighbors in preparation for making a pure sacrifice to the Lord. The actual service, which followed orthodox Jewish forms for prayer before and after meals, began with thanksgiving over the cup and the loaf. When offering the cup, the worship leader would give thanks for the “holy vine of David,” likely a reference to the Messianic community (Psalm 80:8), following up with a doxology, "To you be glory forever". (Note: this is pretty similar to how we conduct monthly Communion services in my Evangelical church. We do so separately from the main worship service, which contains the sermon).

After the doxology, the worship leader would give thanks over the broken loaf, thanking God “for the life and knowledge You have revealed through Jesus, Your Child,” concluding with another doxology. That was followed by a community meal which, though not detailed in the Didache, likely was a precursor of the pot luck suppers we see in some modern churches.

Notice this early guidebook for Christian worship, sort of an early day Novus Ordo, makes no mention of either the body or the blood of Christ? The emphasis is on the gathering of the church body (1 Corinthians 10.17). The worship service as practiced by the first Christians was a “praise-celebration” of the congregation of God’s people, an event where prayers and thanksgiving, interwoven with doxologies, were offered to God. Rome claims the mythical apostolic succession to validate her high priest, the pope, and has developed all sorts of rules and practices to control who gets to officiate at her “Eucharistic sacrifice” but the Didache provides no specifics concerning what sort of church leader was to preside over the earliest Eucharistic celebration. Yet it does give clear instructions concerning prophets, whom it calls the church’s high priests, and how they were to be welcomed and validated.

One of the men Rome honors as an early church father, Justin Martyr, provided details of weekly Christian worship some decades later in his “First Apology,” written to the Roman Emperor about 155AD.

"And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.”(Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap 67, quoted in A. Roberts and J Donaldson Edd., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 1, Books For The Ages, AGES Software, Albany, OR, Version 2.0 © 1997, p. 343-4)

It was not until 637 A.D. when a friar named Anastatius rejected the symbolic language connected with Communion and came up with the literal "Real Presence" that the doctrine began to develop, further supported by Church Councils in the 8th and 9th centuries. (More on that later).

Part II - a look at the beginnings of the Roman interpretation of the Lord's Supper.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Delving Deeper into Hebrews 13:5

Don over at Scripture Student has posted a great entry on God’s command to in Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

His friend is facing major surgery, and he is reminded of the Lord’s many exhortations against anxiety. Knowing with certainty that the King of Kings is by our side should flood us with peace. Don asked for personal thoughts or elaboration on the passage, (at least I think that’s what he asked for….had so much on my mind lately, it’s hard to have clarity of thought!), and I remembered this brief exposition/commentary I’d banged out on the related verse in Joshua 1:5 (as quoted by the author of Hebrews).

Rather than filling up the Scripture Student combox, I figured I’d re-post my thoughts over here. It’s funny, reading your own words several years after the fact! I wrote this in an earlier time in my walk with God, when I was only a novice student of hermeneutics (the study of Bible interpretation). Nevertheless, God’s Word was as living and active to me then as it is now, and I sought Him diligently therein. He was always faithful to teach me, and He still is….when I am faithful to seek.

From 2006:


A little over a year ago, I started a personal study called "The Way of Agape" and have found its principles of dying to self (in order to be a clean vessel of God's love to others) quite challenging, to say the least. According to author Nancy Missler, step one in loving God the way we should is knowing He loves us.

We all say we know God loves us, but many of us struggle to get into our hearts what we know in our heads….that He truly loves us independently of what we do. In addition, the term "unconditional love" does not appear anywhere in the Bible. On impulse, I flipped to the verses listed "proving" God loves us, and near the top of the list was Hebrews 13:5, which contains the familiar promise that we repeat to ourselves to affirm that God is with us: "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."

But do we ask ourselves "what does this mean to Christians, in practicality?" Is it just a warm fuzzy catch-phrase?

Of course, I do believe that God loves us tenderly and personally; but is this just an endearment? If we look at the circumstances under which God promises His presence, we may glean some insight into its application. Seeing the verse in the King James Version helps us realize God’s assurance is individual, and not just collective. The translation uses the you-singular term “thee”, rather than the plural “ye”, which is faithful to the original Hebrew. Many of God’s promises are, in fact, “singular” and therefore personal words to us, but we often miss that in the newer translations. What an amazing thought, that we are not simply one of 6 billion faces to the Almighty; but He is faithful to sustain each one of His children in exactly the way that he or she needs.

If you look up the verse’s cross-references, you see that the author of Hebrews was quoting from Moses in Deuteronomy 31:6 as well as Joshua 1:5. Look at the context in Deuteronomy 31:6 - they were going into battle. Where was the Lord leading them when He gave this promise? Into Canaan – the Promised Land. First He says to them, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified". He promises to go into battle with them, and assures their victory. At the beginning of the book of Joshua, the Israelites were about to take on a monumental feat and a trial – to inherit the land they had forfeited by their lack of faith 40 years earlier.

This is not a warm, fuzzy, self-affirming message; it's much more than that, if we learn to apply the illustration. What are our "enemies"? Or, put another way, what do we do battle against? Sin - especially our most ingrained, habitual sins. In Romans 7:23, Paul specifically says the carnal desires “wage war against” the spirit and law of God. Yes, we're dead to sin, but even the idealistic, Spirit-filled New Testament writers acknowledged it's a continual battle. God promises not only to fight the battle with us, but He won't abandon or forsake us when we're in defeat! That's what that verse means.

He won't leave us at the mercy of our sin [give up on us] - "Oh, she did that again. Hopeless reprobate." The context is of battle -- literal in the Old Testament; spiritual for us. This also conjures up Paul's allegory of "putting on the full armor of God" in Eph. 6:11 -- the whole idea of fighting a battle against sin and being soldiers comes through a lot in the New Testament. Paul refers several times to his fellow evangelists as “soldiers” of Christ, again comparing the spiritual battle to a military one. Soldiers on the battlefield never leave their fallen or wounded brethren behind, and God is assuring us in this simple promise, repeated three times in Scripture, that neither will He abandon us when we struggle and fail in our sin. Looking at that promise in its original context forced me to see it in a whole new light.

Many times, when we sin, our first impulse is to “run and hide”. I’ve often felt like God should be throwing His hands up by now! This promise is that He is an Ally, ever fighting by our side. The following verse in Hebrews 13:6 confirms that: “So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"

Sunday, March 8, 2009

More Christian Movie Recommendations

Thanks to Torchlighters' "Heroes of the Faith" series (in conjunction with Voice of the Martyrs), kids and adults alike may be edified and inspired by real-life stories of uncompromising faith and commitment to Christ. The 30-minute personal stories highlight several saints in Church history, including martyred Bible translator William Tyndale, 17th-century preacher John Bunyan, missionary Jim Elliot, and imprisoned Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand (the founder of Voice of the Martyrs).

The films are colorful cartoons, and include great extras. Several of them are available through Netflix, if you don't want to purchase the whole set. I spoke with a couple of homeschooling moms from church this week, and two of them have used the films as part of their Church history curriculum. Many Christians do not know much about our shared legacy of faith, and these true stories of the saints who have gone before us are a great way to inspire a love of the Truth and similar passion for Christ in the younger generation.

Many thanks to Pastor Kevin Williams over at Puritan Fellowship for posting the trailers of all of these great films (you can view them here).

From the William Tyndale DVD jacket:

Living as a hunted fugitive has its challenges. King Henry VIII has ordered his bounty hunters to track William Tyndale down and William can almost feel them closing in.

William Tyndale’s calling is to right a great wrong. The church and government authorities have made it illegal to read, write or even speak the sacred Scriptures in English. The most important book ever written is being kept from all but the most educated and powerful people of the day. Sensing that God’s Word is for all people, William defies the authorities and begins the difficult and dangerous work of translating the Old and New Testaments.

William Tyndale DVD jacket This Episode of Torchlighters follows William’s adventures as he works in secret to complete his task. Friends and allies will help him along, but enemies may be lurking behind any corner. Children will be challenged by the story of how William risks his life to bring God’s word to England. When they see the sacrifice William is willing to make so that others may read the Bible, their appreciation for the Scriptures will increase.

Angry religious leaders burned William Tyndale’s Bible translations and other writings.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Spurgeon on Taking Every Thought Captive

Here is an insightful excerpt from Charles Spurgeon, "The Prince of Preachers" on the battle unbiblical thoughts often wage in our minds after Christ has redeemed us. Often, when we are living for the Lord and striving to renew our minds in light of His Word, we forget that we are targeted by the enemy and are still susceptible to the darkness within us...and without. The battle rages on, but those of us who are in Christ have been secured the ultimate victory. It was won 2,000 years ago, on Calvary.

"I have heard someone say, “I am tormented with horrible thoughts. Wherever I go, blasphemies steal in upon me. Frequently at my work a dreadful suggestion forces itself upon me, and even on my bed I am startled from my sleep by whispers of the evil one. I cannot get away from this horrible temptation.”

Friend, I know what you mean, for I have myself been hunted by this wolf. A man might as well hope to fight a swarm of flies with a sword as to master his own thoughts when they are set on by the devil. I do not wonder you feel that you are without strength to stop these hideous and abominable thoughts which Satan pours into your soul; but yet I would remind you of the Scripture, “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” [Romans 5:6]

Jesus saw that we could not overcome the prince of the power of the air; He knew that we should be greatly worried by him; but even then, when He saw us in that condition, Christ died for the ungodly. Cast the anchor of your faith upon this. The devil himself cannot tell you that you are not ungodly; believe, then, that Jesus died for you.
Remember Martin Luther’s way of cutting the devil’s head off with his own sword. “Oh,” said the devil to Martin Luther, “you are a sinner.” “Yes,” said he, “Christ died to save sinners.” Thus he smote him with his own sword. Hide in this refuge, and remain there: “In due time Christ died for the ungodly.” If you stand to that truth, your blasphemous thoughts which you have no strength to drive away will go away of themselves; for Satan will see that he is answering no purpose by plaguing you with them. These thoughts, if you hate them, are none of yours, but are injections of the Devil, for which he is responsible, and not you. If you strive against them, they are no more yours than are the cursings and falsehoods of rioters in the street. The rush and throng of these dreadful thoughts, put you in much the same condition as the poor diseased woman who could not come to Jesus for the press of the crowd around her. Still, she put forth her finger, and touched the fringe of the Lord’s garment, and she was healed. You can do the same. Jesus died for those who are guilty of “all manner of sin and blasphemy,” and I am therefore certain He will not refuse those who are unwillingly the captives of evil thoughts. Cast yourself upon Him, thoughts and all, and see if He is not mighty to save. He can still those horrible whisperings of the fiend, or He can enable you to see them in their true light, so that you may not be worried by them. In His own way He can and will save you, and at length give you perfect peace. Only trust Him for this and everything else.
    We are not strangers to the cry:
    Oh that I could believe,
    Then all would easy be;
    I would, but cannot; Lord, relieve,
    My help must come from thee.
It is a very curious thing, this whole matter of believing; for people do not get much help by trying to believe. Believing does not come by trying. If a person were to make a statement of something he saw, I should not tell him that I would try to believe him. If I believed in the truthfulness of the man, I should accept the statement at once. If I did not think him a true man, I should, of course, disbelieve him; but there would be no trying in the matter. Now, when God declares that there is salvation in Christ Jesus, I must either believe Him at once, or make Him a liar. Surely you will not hesitate as to which is the right path in this case. The witness of God must be true, and we are bound to believe in Jesus. But possibly you have been trying to believe too much. Now do not aim at great things. Be satisfied to have a faith that can hold in its hand this one truth, “While we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” He laid down His life for men while as yet they were not believing in Him, nor were able to believe in Him. He died for men, not as believers, but as sinners. He came to make these sinners into believers and saints; but when He died for them He viewed them as utterly without strength. If you hold to the truth that Christ died for the ungodly, and believe it, your faith will save you, and you may go in peace. If you will trust your soul with Jesus, who died for the ungodly, even though you cannot believe all things, nor move mountains, nor do any other wonderful works, yet you are saved. It is not great faith, but true faith, that saves; and the salvation lies not in the faith, but in the Christ in whom faith trusts. Faith as a grain of mustard seed will bring salvation. It is not the measure of faith, but the sincerity of faith, which is the point to be considered. Surely a man can believe what he knows to be true; and as you know Jesus to be true, you, my friend, can believe in Him. Sit before the cross and watch the dying Saviour till faith springs up spontaneously in your heart. There is no place like Calvary for creating confidence.. The air of that sacred hill brings health to trembling faith. Many a watcher there has said:
    While I view Thee, wounded, grieving,
    Breathless on the cursed tree,
    Lord, I feel my heart believing
    That Thou suffer’dst thus for me.
“Alas!” cries another, “my lack of strength lies in this direction, that I cannot quit my sin, and I know that I cannot go to Heaven and carry my sin with me.” I am glad that you know that, for it is quite true. You must be divorced from your sin, or you cannot be married to Christ. Recollect the question which flashed into the mind of young John Bunyan when at his sports on the green on Sunday: “Wilt thou have thy sins and go to hell, or wilt thou quit thy sins and go to heaven?” That is a question which every man will have to answer: for there is no going on in sin and going to heaven. That cannot be. You must quit sin or quit hope. Do you reply, “Yes, I am willing enough. I have the willingness but sin has mastered me, and I have no strength.” Come, then, if you have no strength, this text is still true, “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” Can you still believe that? Whatever other things may seem to contradict it, will you believe it? God has said it, and it is a fact; therefore, hold on to it like grim death, for your only hope lies there. Believe this and trust Jesus, and you shall soon find power with which to slay your sin; but apart from Him, the strong man will hold you forever his bond slave.

Personally, I could never have overcome my own sinfulness. I tried and failed. My evil tendencies were too many for me, till, in the belief that Christ died for me, I cast my guilty soul on Him, and then I received a conquering principle by which I overcame my sinful self. There is nothing like faith in Jesus, the sinner’s Friend: it overcomes all evil. If Christ has died for me, ungodly as I am, without strength as I am, then I cannot live in sin any longer, but must arouse myself to love and serve Him who hath redeemed me. I cannot trifle with the evil which slew my best Friend. I must be holy for His sake. How can I live in sin when He has died to save me from it? See what a splendid help this is to you that are without strength, to know and believe that in due time Christ died for such ungodly ones as you are. Have you caught the idea yet? It is, somehow, so difficult for our darkened, prejudiced, and unbelieving minds to see the essence of the gospel. At times I have thought, when I have done preaching, that I have laid down the gospel so clearly, that the nose on one’s face could not be more plain; and yet I perceive that even intelligent hearers have failed to understand what was meant by “Look unto me and be ye saved.”

Converts usually say that they did not know the gospel till such and such a day; and yet they had heard it for years. The gospel is unknown, not from want of explanation, but from absence of personal revelation. This the Holy Ghost is ready to give, and will give to those who ask Him. Yet when given, the sum total of the truth revealed all lies within these words: “Christ died for the ungodly.”

And those replacement Pharisees think we subscribe to "easy believism".

"Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
" 'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.' You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." - Mark 7:6-7

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Victory in Tragedy

Our church buried an 18-year-old boy today.

The funeral was such a sad event, knowing the grief and emotion that was tearing his family and all of us apart; yet ironically there was an undercurrent of joy running throughout the ceremony.

Somewhere around 1,000 people attended his memorial service, most folks were not from the church as it was mid-day. I was fortunate to be able to attend, and am so glad that I witnessed the legacy that this young man left behind.

His best friend performed the song "I Can Only Imagine", which led most in the sanctuary to tears. The pastor, in his message, related that he asked Steven when he knew he was going to die, (knowing Steven was saved and walking with the Lord). The young man replied, "I pretty much knew I was dying when they told me I had brain cancer." He knew. Throughout his months-long agonizing ordeal, he knew.

And he was at peace with dying. Why? Because he knew Who he served.

Many of Steven's classmates, teachers, and football teammates were present today. The message was for them - the pastor candidly told them that his dying wish was that they may have the same assurance of eternal life that he had. He wanted them to come to the Lord Jesus Christ, and for 20-odd minutes, our pastor gave the best Gospel presentation I have ever heard.

All of us must face the Lord someday, and the road diverges to either heaven or hell. How do you know where you are going? What would you give as an answer to the Judge of your soul? The pastor addressed the two main misconceptions that people have about heaven - that righteousness ("I hope I've been good enough") or religion (I'm a spiritual person - I go to church and take the 'sacraments' ") will get you in. He talked about repentance, what it means to follow Christ, and being born again. Statistically, most of the attendees were Catholics; such a clear-cut, simple explanation of salvation and assurance from the Bible was foreign to most of them. I heard a few kids talking about the message over the lunch that followed with a tone of awe. Never had they heard, seen or felt anything like the message of Christ lived out in the sanctuary that morning.

The most moving part of the service came when the adult leader of the teen post-Katrina mission trips took the podium. Sharing a few special (and humorous!) anecdotes about Steve, he then spoke of his last few weeks. Confined to bed and hospice care, he was weak, in pain, with virtually no motor ability and no speech. He and the boy's best friend prayed through much of the Word with him. A day or two before he died, straining to participate in praying a psalm, this boy pleaded with God to "use [him]". "Let my life have meaning....for your glory," he prayed.

Even on his deathbed, even in his own pain, he was thinking of bringing others into the Kingdom. He longed for God to be glorified.

What an amazing, moving life. We know he is rejoicing now in heaven, and so many people have heard the Good News because of him. His death, although tragic and by our standards early, may be used of God to save as many people as he did in life.

THAT is a life well lived.