Archive for June, 2007

THE GOOD THAT I WOULD DO

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

One of the most misunderstood scriptures in the New Testament is Romans chapter 7. It does not matter what brand of Christian you are talking to, if the subject of holiness arises and with it the commands to walk in the image of Christ, free from sin, the automatic retort is to fire off a few choice verses of Romans chapter 7. Poor old Paul, it seems, just couldn't help himself, “The good that I wish, I do not do, but I commit the very evil that I do not wish” and the church delights in his imagined frailty – to their collective ruin. For in this, as in much of their understanding of scripture, they fulfill Peter's statement concerning Paul, “in his letters… are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort as they do all the scriptures, to their own destruction.”

From the church's understanding of scripture Paul is a tragic figure stumbling in all of his ways (just as they the church do), a hypocrite not living what he preached; but this is not what Paul is revealing in this chapter. As is so often the case, people take a text out of context to justify their own crooked walk. To get to the heart of what Paul is talking about we have to go back to the previous chapter. In Chapter 6 Paul says, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? May it never be! How shall we who died still live in it?” Then he explains how we have been baptized into Christ's death that “we too might walk in newness of life.” For “our old man was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be destroyed, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” Paul continues by saying, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts,”… “for sin shall not be master over you for you are not under law but under grace.” From such a beginning it seems inconceivable that Paul is now saying, in the very next chapter, “but hey don't worry about it, none of us are perfect!” But this is exactly what the church believes that he is saying!

Why the confusion? Basically because the church believes theologically rather than spiritually. By this I mean the church's understanding of scripture is based upon a reading of scripture from an unregenerated mind. Now Paul says in Chapter 8, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God: for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so”, and as the church admits that they themselves are unable to subject themselves to the law of God, so as to walk as those alive from the dead, but rather, that they must continue in sin until the day that they die, then in what sense, are they really Christian. To make matters worse they comfort themselves, in their disobedience, by claiming that Paul is admitting the same failing in himself.

Paul's argument in Chapter7 begins by comparing the freedom a wife has to remarry on the death of her husband, with our being freed from the Law through our death in Christ which leaves us free to be joined to another, namely the one who raised Christ from the dead. Now if it is impossible for a Christian to be free from sin, as the church teaches, then it is equally clear that they haven't really died with Christ to sin, and if they haven't died then they are not free from the Law and he who is bound to the Law is judged by the Law as scripture also teaches. That Paul says that a Christian does not sin is clear in verses 5&6 of Chapter7, “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”

The dilemma for the church has always been how do we square off the fact that we believe ourselves to be Christians and hence dead to sin, with the fact that apparently we cannot stop ourselves from sinning. That is where theology comes to their rescue. Theology is the cheats way into heaven, a door other than the cross, and the way through that door is to search the scriptures for intellectual loopholes to make you feel comfortable about your spiritual state by enabling yourself to believe that you are what you are not. Fortunately for them Paul's seeming admission that “the good that I would do, I do not do”, is just what they need to sit in their mediocrity. Unfortunately they stop others from entering the real door, the door to life, the cross of Christ.

When Paul says, “For that which I am doing, I don't understand for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing that I hate”, he cannot be speaking as a Christian. This is obvious for in the preceding verse he says, “but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin”, and this is a statement which cannot be uttered by a Christian who is no longer a slave to sin. So he is merely speaking this way as a literary device for the spelling out of an argument to those to whom in chapter 6 he has already said, “I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.”

Paul is seeking to help weak Christians come to terms with the power of indwelling sin, that they might take hold of the full freedom that is offered them as followers of Christ. So when Paul spells out how, if you are ashamed of your acts of sin, there must be at work within you two Laws, the Law of the sin in your members, and the Law of your mind which knows in its depths what is right, he is urging them to take to heart the reality of their spiritual state that they might accept the way out of their chains. So when he cries out in dramatic conclusion, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus my Lord!” He certainly is not confessing a pitiful hopelessness that he must be left for the rest of his mortal life in this shameless impasse. No he is rejoicing that he no longer has to live under Law, with its animal sacrifices that could not free him from the power of sin, but now he was receiving a deeper cleansing from dead works through his baptism into Christ's death.

To get a deeper appreciation of the hopelessness Paul must have felt under Law we should look at his life prior to and including his conversion. Paul tells us that he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, zealous beyond all of his friends. So determined was he to serve God and please Him that he pursued Christians with such a zeal that his name was feared among the early church. So the good that Paul wanted to do, above all else, was to keep the Law, and yet, in spite of a zeal that would put today's Christians to shame, he failed. “The good that I would do, I do not do; but I commit the very evil I do not wish”. This must have been what he felt to the wretched core of his being after the Lord shattered him on the road to Damascus. For in his heart he concurred that the Law was good, but in his members he served the law of sin, dragging off Christians in chains. “Who can save me from the body of this death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Explorations in Faith

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Christianity is categorized as a faith based religion. Before the Reformation this really was not the case because everyone was baptized at birth and you simply were part of the church. But ever since the Reformation and the questioning of church authority saw Luther highlighting the text in Romans 3:28 “… a man is justified by faith”, by adding to it the word “only”, the fixation of the church has been upon faith. That is faith as opposed to works. What this has resulted in has been an eruption of men who claim to have faith but reveal nothing of the works that necessarily flow from real faith. We have the spectacle of members of different denominations joining themselves together, in a spirit of ecumenicalism, proclaiming themselves to be fellow Christians but living divided because of doctrinal differences. We see the arguments between so called fundamentalists and so called liberal Christians over what is essential belief. We see the secular argument that you can either have reason or faith but not both. We see street preachers literally stand on a bible and say they are standing on the word of God. There is so much confusion, so much hokum, that for there to be any such thing as true faith it must be, by and large, hidden from the hearts and minds of those who profess themselves to be Christian. This then is an exploration into what it means to have faith.

One of the major problems in our conception of faith is that we have allowed it to become a word which denotes belief alien or inaccessible to reason. To the western thinker the mind has somehow gained the ascendancy in our understanding of ourselves. Truth has been seen to belong to the realm of intellectual understanding rather than a spiritual reality encompassing so much more than the mere imaginings and stumblings of our intellectual enlightenment. The truth is we exist independent of what we make of our existence. Science has conned people into accepting that having faith in anything materially unseen is irrational. Of course the reason that this belief has held sway is that, by and large, the faith which most Christians profess to hold is patently absurd. Therefore we need to investigate what is it to have real faith in God.

Rather than it being irrational to believe in God it would be highly irrational to deny His existence if you personally were confronted with any of the events described in Scripture. I mean if the almighty, all powerful God spoke to you and told you to build an ark you would be certifiably mad not to believe in His existence even if you could not see who was talking to you. Similarly if you witnessed a burning bush and a voice told you to remove your shoes for you were on holy ground you might be in great fear and trembling and in a state of high anxiety but you would be irrational to deny the existence of God. If you look through the Scriptures you will find numerous examples of this sort of direct confrontation between men and God and it is the reality of this interaction that is at the heart of faith. In fact without these encounters there would be no Scripture at all and no faith, in the Biblical sense, to speak of.

Faith then can be seen to have arisen not from man placing his rational being on hold but rather it is his rational response to extraordinary events. The problem with modern day Christianity is that the faith that is generally proclaimed by the church is not a living faith based on an experience of God but rather it is an appeal to accept a doctrinal understanding of what certain reported events mean to you the potential believer. Unfortunately the faith that is proclaimed by the church is usually one that does entail a suspension of rational knowledge for it is based not on what you personally know and have experienced but it is derived from the thought and study of other men. But this kind of faith is not the faith of Scripture, this is a faith not much different in essence from the faith lived by the Jews in the time of Christ. The Sadducees and the Pharisees both believed in God and interpreted what they believed their response to Scripture should be but this response did not come from God as the Pharisee Saul discovered through his life changing experience on the road to Damascus. Faith has never been, in the Scriptures, a matter of individual interpretation but rather it is derived from an exchange, often a struggling one, between man and God.

The Old Testament prophets are testimony to what real faith entails. This notion might seem controversial, for supposedly the faith that the church professes is derived from the intensive study of the New Testament, but even the New Testament in the book of Hebrews lists these Old Testament figures as having gained God's approval through faith. These prophets did not join with the mainstream religious practitioners of their day, but rather, being secretly instructed by God, spoke out against the vain beliefs of their fellow countrymen. So it can be seen that real faith is acquired in extraordinary circumstances not according to some doctrinal formula but due to a real and continuing encounter with God. The real strength of this faith enabled men like the prophets to speak out against their fellow countrymen often to their own peril.

Faith then is not an escape into wishful thinking and speculative theology but it is the fearful response of men to a divine encounter. Paul writes that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God and the writer of Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This fear is not some arbitrary fear of the unknown or some theological fear of hell but it is the living fear, awe, respect of a chastened man being unexpectedly faced with the awesome reality of his creator. When such an experience happens you are in no doubt as to its reality for you literally are in fear and trembling before Him. So then to have faith in God you must know Him. This after all is the faith in which Abraham walked, for he was accounted righteous because he believed the things God spoke to him. We are called to walk in the faith of Abraham and thus prove ourselves to be sons of Abraham. If our faith is not based upon a genuine relationship with God how is it faith?

Unless our faith in God is based on a relationship with God of the same magnitude as the prophets then our faith is not real. The book of Hebrews tells us that, “it is impossible to please God without faith, for to come to God we must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of them that seek Him”. How can we have faith in Him if we have not in some sense met with Him? This is a conundrum and one which the faith that is preached throughout the church fails to take into account. For the gospel is not about words but about power. Paul writing to the Corinthians said, “And my word and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be on the wisdom of men but on the power of God.” In other words the gospel that Paul preached is not the gospel that is preached in the pulpits and churches through out the land, for where is there any sense of the awe and the power of God that was present in the ministry of the early church?

It isn't enough to simply believe that the Bible is the word of God and believe that in them you have eternal life. When Jesus walked in the midst of Israel there were many men who knew every word that was written in the books of the Law and the prophets but He knew them in a way that they did not. He came manifesting a power and speaking with an authority that they did not. Jesus said to those who had trouble accepting His words, “though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father”. If there is any doubt as to whether this also should apply to all who proclaim Him, He also says,”Truly,truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater than these shall he do; because I go to the Father.”

The church today preaches a gospel that is devoid of power and a gospel without power is no gospel at all. When I say the church has no power I must clarify that statement for there is much talk of signs and wonders in the Pentecostal movement within the church but the hysteria and hype found within that movement bears no relationship to the power witnessed within the early church. The power I'm talking of saw Ananias and Sapphira drop down dead after lying about the distribution of their wealth after the sale of their property. The power I'm thinking of saw people laying the sick out on the streets so that as Peter walked past his shadow might fall on them. The power I am talking of is a power that confronts and challenges the preconceptions we hold about the world. Unless the gospel is proclaimed in the power of God it is not the gospel. After the resurrection we are told that the disciples had to wait until they were clothed with power from on high before they could go forth to preach the gospel.

The reason I am writing these things is to question the contention that faith is a suspension of rationality. The faith that is constantly mentioned in the scriptures is one based solely in response to an active work of God. What we too readily call faith today would be more accurately called wishful thinking. Because so much of what is called faith in the church is a suspension of reality based upon a creatively hopeful interpretation of scripture, the idea of faith is mocked by those outside the church. If the church bore witness through their faith to the reality of God working in them and with them then the world would be hard pressed to mock and question as they do.