A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What We Would Have The World to See in the Manger

The Bible did not originate the celebration of Christmas. Originally, it’s a Roman Catholic holiday. But, for centuries, it's been almost universally celebrated by everyone in Western civilization, regardless of religious background.

For some, because of loneliness, financial strain or some other reason, the holidays are depressing. They may be especially open to the love of Christ at this time. Also, this is many people’s favorite time of year. We know it is one of the few opportunities for many people to stop and give consideration to Jesus. Though many Christians choose not to celebrate Christmas as the day of Christ's birth, we’re fools if we do not attempt to use the season as an aid to winning souls to the Lord. Having said that, let’s consider what we hope the world will see when thinking of Christ’s birth.

We’re all familiar with the scene: Wooden manger full of straw, babe wrapped in swaddling cloth over whom a strange assembly watches. Livestock lay about the perimeter of the crude shelter. A young woman, Mary, reclines closest to the sleeping child, her husband, Joseph, standing beside her in dignified manner. Near them, humble shepherds, called to worship by the heavenly chorus, look on. Though they would not have been at the manger according to the Gospel accounts, most Nativity scenes include representations of the richly dressed magi, or wise-men from the east, drawn to worship the newborn by the appearance of his star. What a strange sight to see! Why did God choose that he should enter into the world of men in such a manner? Our answer for now is threefold. We would have the world (and us) to see these three things when considering Christ’s birth.

First, see proof that Jesus is THE Son of God! If men were to have speculated about such a thing before Jesus’ birth, likely they would have predicted something opulent. But God chose what would have not even been noticed were it not for the annunciation by angels, and he chose the most humble circumstances possible, and the most helpless form possible. That these humble circumstances was the way God intended to break into the world of men is borne out by a myriad of Messianic Prophecies (Genesis 3:15, Galatians 4:4; Isaiah 7:14, Luke 1:26-31; Micah 5:2, Luke 2:4-7).

Second, see the power and confidence of God. The spirit told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9 NASB), and there is no greater example of that principle than the way the Lord of Lords entered the earth! The Lord of all came into the world as a helpless baby; unable to walk, and unable to talk. But the manger scene is not evidence of the weakness of God, but rather the Father’s complete confidence in his own ability to protect his Son, and his complete confidence in his Son’s strength to possess mortal frame with all the perfection and righteousness of deity. Jesus is our Teacher (Matt 23:8), and he is the truth (John 14:6). Therefore, learning the message of the manger we must trust that God can protect us and provide for us, and that he will not allow us to face hardships that are beyond our strength when we trust in him and obey.

Finally, see the preeminent example of humility. The “Sun of Righteousness” did not appear as a glorious ruler in splendid array! He did not enter the world in a blinding light, and did not have a halo—he didn’t even wear silken robes. Jesus wasn’t even a handsome man (Isaiah 53:2). No, but our savior entered the world the same way he died in it—in utter humility. Consider Luke 2:1-20. Note: God chose working-class parents for Jesus. The Lord’s family had no VIP status; there was no room for them at the inn. They were not above lodging in accommodations meant for beasts of burden. Jesus’ first bed was a feeding trough, and his first admirers were among the poorest of peasants.

What is important to you? Are you upset when you cannot afford to buy your children the very best? Do you believe that wealth and comfort, influence and power are what are desirable in this life? Are humble lodgings and humble company below you? Such things were not below Jesus. Even though he had to power to choose whatever kind of birth anyone could ever want, he chose humility. Let us do likewise. Whether or not to celebrate Christmas has long been a question among Christians. You decide what you will do for yourself and your own family. However, for those of us who observe the day as something special, as I do, let us never allow ourselves to confuse love with things, fellowship with company, or power with the flesh. We want to learn that from the manger, and we want the world to see that too.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Too Much Work and Too Much Play

Confession: I used to be an addicted gamer. I really can say, "used to," because the Lord has delivered me from that. I grew up in the atari generation. Video games have been a normal diversion for as long as I can remember. I've always loved board (not "bored") games too. Early in my adolescence I was inroduced to pen-and-paper role-playing games. The rest is history. Throughout adolescence and well into my adult life I was often obsessed with games. Thankfully, I had only begun to dabble in the world of the "Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game" (MMORPG) when I sought God's assistance in deciding to leave the addiction for more meaningful ways to spend my time. Don't misunderstand me, I still love games. I thoroughly enjoy board games with friends and family (I'm a member of a very competitive "club" that
gets together to play RISK as often as possible). I also enjoy some video games, but I've learned to avoid involved, immersive gaming, because it has a tendency to become one's life rather than enrich it. I understand we're all different, and that you may well have a different experience with games of that type than I've had.

I suppose I was a "functioning" game addict. I managed to get my work done, and meet my obligations in life, but at the bare minimum level. I'm familiar with grown men who've seen worse results of gaming addictions. I know of a fellow whose marriage crumbled, and a considerable contributing factor was an unhealthy amount of video gaming. Recently I read of a teenager who collapsed after playing a MMORPG for 20 straight hours! There's nothing more wrong with gaming than there is with anything else--as long as it's done reasonably. "'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be enslaved by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12 ESV). So, some people are tempted to play too much.

On the other hand, some people are addicted to work. Of all the addictions people nurture, this one is one of the most difficult to break, because it is actually viewed with respect. I'll admit that since leaving behind my former gaming addiction, from time to time I'm tempted to go through periods of work obsession. It's easy to do. My desire is to lead a meaningful, productive life; to provide for my family, and affect the world for Christ, so it's understandable how work can become a mind-consuming focus. Work is very important. God has put us all in the world endowed with various gifts for the purpose of working for him. Earning a living for one's family is a godly thing to do--no doubting that. But, God created the concept of Sabbaths, holy convocations and feast days, and modelled the need for rest from work through Jesus' attempts to "get away from it all" on occasions. Work needs to have its proper time and play needs to have its proper time. every good thing belongs in its proper time.

Addictions and obsessions are means of escaping from a reality we've not learned to handle with peace, patience and wisdom. The world is what it is. It's not that bad, but then again sometimes it is. It has it's fun things, but isn't always as exciting as a summer blockbuster wants us to think it ought to be. Better things are to come for those who love Jesus! Yet, we're here on purpose, and need to learn to see the time we've been given as a precious gift and use it wisely. By prayerfully considering the abilities and opportunities we've been given, we must set clear goals, set aside proper amounts of time for every good purpose in life, and strive to maintain healthy balance. Happiness cannot be found in an imaginary world, nor is it generated by becoming an Ebenezer Scrooge. Happiness comes to us as the result of living a balanced, spiritual life.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

She is far more precious than jewels!

I'm speaking of my sweet wife. It's not our anniversary, this isn't an apology, and it isn't a Christmas present either, just something that's a bit overdue. If I'm to write anything about my life, it will have to include a great deal of praise for the woman who has been at my side in one way or another for nearly 18 years now; as my wife for almost 12. She's a good woman; kind and beautiful, and I love her with my whole heart.

We've been through both good times and bad together. Marriage has been easy sometimes, and sometimes it's been difficult. I think it's been fun so far, and I look forward to the hope of spending the rest of my life with this grown-up version of the 14 year-old girl I met seemingly so long and short a time ago. May God grant that the best is very much yet to come!

For those men who read this and are not yet married, I want to praise some of the qualities of my wife which I can assure you from experience you ought to seek in yours:

1) She loves the Lord. My wife is fully commited to her King, and knows that he is a far better man than her husband. A good wife is called to love and serve her husband as if he were Jesus himself (Eph 5:22). There is no mere man in the world good enough to inspire the kind of adoration and submission that the righteous woman is called to embody towards her husband. If your wife doesn't love Jesus, chances are she won't love you either, cause you don't measure up to him! I thank Jesus that my wife loves him first, and I know she loves me too.

2) She is modest, chaste, and loyal. Modesty in a woman is a virtue highly praised by the Lord (1 Pet 3:3-4), and which ought to be valuable above measure to her husband. While it is hard to hide the beauty of a woman from others(and modesty isn't hiding, it's refraining from flaunting), her beauty is specially for the one with whom she has entered into the covenant of love, and a woman who longs for the admiring glances of other men dishonors her husband. My loyal wife has always honored me, and I love her for it.

3) She makes a man into a family. This is true whether she bears many children or none. A man is just a man until he has a wife, then he is a household. How amazing is that?! This is part of that mystery Paul wrote about in Ephesians 5. While some men are called to remain unmarried and thus specially devoted to the Lord's service (1 Cor 7:7), for most men, God's words in the beginning are applicable, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him" (Gen 2:18 ESV). My wife and I make a great team! We have identical core goals and values. We're a family, and she has given me two beloved sons. I am grateful beyond expression. Her heart is constantly tuned to my health, comfort, security, and well-being, and that of our sons. Even when she works outside the home her mind is on our family life. Without her I'd be just a man, but she has made me a household, and my house a home. There is nothing wrong with a woman wanting a career and all that, but a career-woman makes a poor wife. My wife is a carrer-wife. God bless her!

Men, spend your time thinking of the best things about your wife. Be thankful for her. For those of you who are not yet married, but plan to be, take great care and pray hard about your future bride. Few decisions in life are as consequential as that of choosing a mate. A good wife is worth more than all the money in the world. She makes a man rich even when he's poor.

You're beautiful, virtuous, fun, graceful--a dear friend (and lover). I love you, Keshia. Thank you.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Are People Totally Depraved?

Are people totally depraved? That depends on what you mean; some are, but, are they born that way? Some modern psychological theory asserts that most if not all that we are and do is pre-programmed in our DNA. It’s rubbish. Deep down we all know that we make choices and consequences follow. Children who are taught well and disciplined have less behavioral issues, are happier, and more successful in life. It’s a fact. We are what we learn to be, and choose to be. This is not to say that some basic aspects of our personalities aren’t inherited from our parents, but most of what we are—likes, dislikes, prejudices, beliefs, tendencies, inclinations, boundaries (or lack thereof)—comes from what we learn, and how we use that information as we travel down the road of life.

To be totally depraved is to be without any redeeming moral characteristics. The doctrine of Total Depravity (TD) is a teaching with ancient origins long associated with Christianity. We first see it in the writings of Augustine, and later see it thoroughly developed and encoded into Reformed Theology through the work of John Calvin. Both Catholicism (from Augustine) and Protestantism (mainly from Calvin) hold to forms of the doctrine of TD. The doctrine does not state that all people are as evil as possible (though some are) but that as hopeless sinners, people have nothing that can commend them to a holy God. According to the teaching, this state of seemingly hopeless depravity is inborn; inherited from Adam and Eve. I reject the doctrine of TD for the following reasons.

Many of the texts that Catholics and Calvinists look to for support of the doctrine of TD are poems. Written with expressive, emotional language, they weren’t meant to be taken literally. For example, a common proof-text is Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (ESV). We use such emotional expressions (or outcries) often, not to express absolute fact, but to convey feeling. One of us might cry out, “I never do anything right!” and mean the same thing David did. We don’t mean for someone to think we literally never do anything right, but that we do commonly make mistakes (and that it makes us unhappy to do so). David, the Psalm’s author, was guilt-laden after being confronted about what was likely the most sinful episode of his life. In his grief, he cried out in self-derision. He wasn’t literally conceived in sin or brought forth in iniquity.

How do I know this is true? Jesus and his apostles said so. Jesus says that the kingdom belongs to children, unconditionally, and that childlike innocence is one of the goals of conversion (Luke 18:16-17; Matt 18:3). Jesus certainly would not like his disciples to progress toward something that was not pure. Paul also taught that children are born innocent (spiritually alive) and that sin (spiritual death) comes only after they reach an age of understanding and responsibility for their own actions (Rom 7:9). Children are born sinless, and free from condemnation. They are blank slates upon whose hearts the word of God may be deeply etched by faithful parents and teachers. They are also free to make every moral choice, can resist both grace and authority, and can choose to love, believe and obey. They are not born perfect, and inheriting the corruptible nature of Adam, are certainly bound to sin eventually (Rom 3:23), but not a one will be declared a sinner until he makes the choice for himself (Ezek 18:20). Children have the redeeming quality of moral innocence that commends their unstained souls to a loving God (Matt 18:10). Not a single one of the many children who have been denied the privilege of growing up has anything to fear in the coming Judgment!

So, people are not born totally depraved, but what about when they become sinners (as all who live long enough will do)? TD says that people have no redeeming moral qualities—even to the extent of being unable to believe in Jesus with pure motives without miraculous transformation by God’s Spirit. If TD were truth, and people were not even able to freely choose Christ, there would be no conditions on which God could fairly decide who is righteous and who corrupt. Therefore TD leads to a dependent doctrine called Unconditional Election (UE). UE is the idea that since man can’t believe for himself, God had to choose certain ones (unconditionally) and make them able to believe. That also means that God (again, unconditionally) chose the rest of mankind to suffer eternal punishment. Assuming that TD is right, it follows that whether people are free to choose evil or not, they are not free to choose the good. Let’s apply common sense here. If one isn’t free to choose the good, he isn’t free at all, and isn’t really free to choose evil—he’s just bound to it! The whole idea is unscriptural, for the Bible says that God is no respecter of persons (i.e. he doesn’t favor one over another unfairly –Acts 10:34-35). If all mankind were really TD, to be fair, God would either save all, or condemn all.

A second doctrine that flows from TD is called Limited Atonement (LA). LA says that, since (according to TD and UE) God only chose certain ones for salvation (unconditionally), Christ only died for this limited number of people. However, the Bible says he died for all (2 Cor 5:14-15). The truth is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a potential atonement for anyone, offered on the condition of genuine faith.

For TD to be truth, it is essential to have a third dependent doctrine called Irresistible Grace. This supposed direct operation of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of the unwilling (or willing, but impurely motivated) convert to make him able to believe is a must if the other doctrines of Calvinism are true. Yet, the Scriptures teach (Cornelius being the one exception that proves the rule) that reception of the Spirit is a gift that follows conversion, not one that precedes it (Acts 2:38-39). Therefore it must be true that though people are certainly depraved to one degree or another, they have the ability and freedom to choose the good enough to take the first steps in response to God’s offer of free salvation. Since people are able to make a free decision about the testimony of Christ, we are able to see that there is a single redeeming characteristic in those who freely come to Christ that commends them to God: genuine faith.

People aren’t perfect. People have a lot of bad in them—no doubting that. People have no qualities sufficiently good to make them truly deserving of salvation, but unless we choose to be, we’re not so bad as to be unable to recognize the goodness of Jesus, and the truth of his plan, and make that all-important decision to believe, and obey.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thinking Out Loud as a Community of Believers

Every Tuesday a group of local men who love Jesus get together for a lunch devotional at the Highland Heights church building. It is one of the high points of my week. We've had as few as five brothers present, and as many as 25, and average something like 11-15. We eat together, then sing a hymn, pray together and have a short period of devotional study. We've studied select passages, men's issues, particular doctrines, and so on. Right now we're doing what we call a "discussion study" of the book of Ephesians.

A "discussion study" is a study that consists of group discussion about a passage that we read together. I think today was the seventh week of it. It's been a real blessing. The last two weeks we discussed and debated what it means to be predestined by God for adoption as sons. Today we started and ended our discussion in the text of Ephesians, but while discussing what "inheritance" means we got away from Ephesians into a number of things. It was a truly interesting "rabbit chasing session."

The point of this post is to encourage you to find someone, a small group ideally, with which you can read and discuss the meaning of the Scriptures. And by all means attend Bible classes every week!!! While God has given each of us a mind and ability to understand his word, he gave us each other so that by studying as part of a community of believers, we can come to understand far more than we ever would alone.

"Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other" (Proverbs 27:17 CEV).