Sunday, November 24, 2013

Strange Fire; Strange Disunity

John MacArthur’s recent Strange Fire seminar defending cessationism against continuationism (whether or not the Holy Spirit’s miraculous gifts were only authenticating signs for Bible times and have ceased, or they continue in the present day) has brought a flurry of internet discussion. I’m sure it’s brought many to consider carefully what they believe about this issue. Some people agreed with him before the seminar started and probably still agree with him; some probably changed their minds to agree with him; but I think that most of those who had already come to disagree with him are not likely to be swayed by his seminar, especially since they probably did not attend it.

I haven't firmly planted myself on either side, but I'm tilted. For a few years, our family attended a cessationist church that so closely followed MacArthur’s model (naming many of its ministries the same names, and designing their bulletins identically) that the pastor even plagiarized MacArthur’s sermons every Sunday. It’s the only clearly cessationist church that I have attended, and with that being my only exposure, the nature of that church is part of the reason I’m skeptical about the cessationist stance. Thanks to that pastor's plagiarism, I have heard MacArthur’s arguments over a series of many, many weeks where the cessationist case was fully presented. A few issues cause my skepticism: 1) Once a church dismisses any work of the Holy Spirit as not being for today and camps on that issue, it is very tricky to maintain throughout the congregation that though the miraculous gifts [may have] ceased, all other works of the Holy Spirit should be vibrant and welcome. When I brought my discovery that the pastor was plagiarizing to his attention, first he vehemently denied it, lying to me that indeed he was not plagiarizing, and when I proved to him that I knew that he was, he yelled at me that it did not matter, it was okay for him to do so. Somewhere in that conversation, he actually said that he was not capable of writing a decent sermon and was plagiarizing in order to give the congregation the best material available. At that admission, by resorting to plagiarism, he dismissed the possibility that the Holy Spirit could have worked very well through his weakness. If he didn't know that the plagiarism was wrong, he wouldn't have denied it to begin with. 2) In that church, and in the recent on-line debates regarding the Strange Fire seminar, cessationists went so far as to dismiss the probability that continuationists were even saved. This is an assertion I don’t remember ever hearing from continuationists toward cessationists, and the audacity and pomposity of that assumption is divisive and disheartening. 3) Being convinced that continuationists are not saved, the cessationist church we attended refused to work together with such churches, disdainfully calling the practice ecumenicalism. The stifling nature of their fruit inclines me to believe that cessationism might be false. It might just be that it was a poorly run church, failing to embrace the other works of the Holy Spirit in all His fullness, but I can’t help but suspect there is a foundational flaw in their theology.

In the church we now attend, one of the first things our pastor did for my wrestling with this issue was to lend me a couple of books by Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today and Surprised by the Voice of God: How God Speaks Today Through Prophecies, Dreams, and Visions. I have read articles online that blast Deere’s teachings, but after reading the books, I found them thorough and for the most part credible and realistic (and where they don't seem to be, I wonder whether the problem is with the accounts written, or with me...our God continually does amazing things at which scoffers scoff!), and the Scripture references were aptly presented to state Deere’s case. I came to think that if the gifts were not for today at all, they might not have been so clearly and thoroughly presented in the Scriptures, or there would have been clear and unmistakable instruction about when they would be in operation and when they would not. For example, 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are clearly about the gifts, and to cessationists they would only pertain to Bible times; however right in the center of them is 1 Corinthians 13, the Love chapter, which both cessationists and continuationists accept enthusiastically! How is it that it would go from something that does not pertain to us, to something that pertains to all of us, and right back to something that does not? Maybe He does intend this very thing for some reason...but so much is written in the Scriptures as if to instruct us regarding His gifts for use for the duration of our time here. As Derek Rishmawy of the Gospel Coalition put it, "abuse does not take away use." Just because a doctrine has been badly abused, that abuse doesn't render the doctrine itself dangerous. What I have seen here in the U.S. is a grievous misrepresentation of His work that has provoked this disunity and distress. I am no educated theologian, a disability of which I'm painfully aware...still, I think the Love chapter pertains in some way to the expression of the Spirit's gifting since it is right there in the middle of those two chapters around it, maybe describing His love expressed through gifts manifested among His people throughout time. Wouldn't that make sense?

On the other hand, I understand why the miraculous gifts are an issue MacArthur feels compelled to address, though I think he’s basically preaching to his choir. I doubt that the people at whom he’s most directly leveling his charges are listening, or that they care whether they’re approved by MacArthur or not, and why. It’s not hard to see that the gifts are abused and misunderstood in a great many enthusiastic and emotional churches, often churches that misread the Scriptures in not just the gifts but in many other aspects, such as what the Bible says about giving and suffering and obedience and grace and salvation. Unfortunately I think many of these messed-up takes on theology have originated in the United States, and where they appear overseas, it’s usually an unfortunate spread from our shores to theirs. But so many missionaries around the world have long testified to the miraculous nature of the work of the Spirit, it makes me think that what most Americans see is a warped rendition; the reality is generally found in other countries where the Spirit’s work is less hindered by human preconceptions and more welcomed by the extreme need for miraculous intervention. 

My confusion and grief over the division between these two distinct beliefs increases the more that I read what others write. There are people I respect in both camps, and I think we all have a hard time seeing things from any perspective but our own. While we take our stances, we need to continue loving and honoring those who believe these other doctrines, and accept their faith as long as they live for the glory of God and hold to the orthodox basics: Who Jesus is; why He came; how He came; what He did; what He’s doing; where He is; why we need Him to save us, from what, to what; where we’re going…I know there are some details that need filling in here, a few clear basics that must be adhered to and the rest being secondary. The Bible says so simply “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Not, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and this doctrine and that doctrine and the one over there, and go to only this church, only use this Bible version, and you will be saved.” The gospel is understandable and within reach of the simple and the young; but our human nature is to complicate it to make it only apply to us and all who completely agree with us. As long as the Jesus we trust for salvation and live to obey is the Jesus of the Bible...don't we belong to Him? While we are called to understand all that we can of the Scriptures that God has given us, I do believe that salvation is truly that simple, and accepting that fact is much more conducive to God-glorifying unity among those who call themselves Christians! 

I don't think that any one human has a monopoly on the truth. Seems that there’s a Spirit somewhere Who could be called upon to help straighten out the mess, give us wisdom and reunite the estranged and divided masses of believers. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

High Voltage!

Last Sunday Nate McGlinchy gave a sermon full of wonderful points and gave quick reference to the various scriptural consequences of sin…and just touched on how they are in so many ways faced by Jesus on the cross. I pondered this during the week when moments allowed; the cross is always worthy of meditation. The odd thing was, I knew the things he mentioned, individually. Never, though, had I put them together as a group of things that Jesus faced that were reflected in the Scripture as a package of so many various things every sinner would himself face as the price for his sin (payment for which is entirely beyond mere human capability). The grouping of these awesome and crushing problems that Jesus took upon Himself and fully dealt with at the cross seemed like a bunch of power cords all bundled together to make one super-power cord! I thought I’d list some verses re: what the sinner has looming, and what Jesus removes from the repentant believer. I expect there are more than I was able to find!

Adam and Eve, and all the human race, is under the curse of sin until turning to Christ:
Genesis 3:14-19:
14 The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
    cursed are you above all livestock
    and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.”
16 To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”
17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
to dust you shall return.”
Jesus became a curse for us on the cross:
Galatians 3:13-14:
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Because we are born sinners, we are born under God’s wrath and destined for eternal punishment:
John 3:36:
36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Jesus took God’s punishment for our sin upon Himself at the cross:
Isaiah 53:5-6:
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
Sin brings separation between us and God:
Isaiah 59:2:
2 But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.
Jesus was separated from God on the cross:
Matthew 27:46:
46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Death is the payment for our sins:
Romans 6:23:
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus died on the cross for our sins:
Luke 23:46:
46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
Philippians 2:8:
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are reconciled to God:
2 Corinthians 5:17-19:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Mark 15:37-38:
37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
One difference between Jesus going through these things and us going through them was that though He was tempted, He never sinned; He didn't deserve the punishment that He willingly took on for our sake:
Hebrews 4:15:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
We deserve these things. He did not. He gave His life willingly for us, in obedience to God the Father. So though I knew of these things individually, and each one is packed with power, combined it was like taking some huge high-power electrical wires and binding them all together. High voltage! Of course they do nothing, they lay powerless, until you apply them and realize all that He did for you, and turn your life over to Him. Then they employ that power to give life to your spirit and transfer your citizenship right out of recorded time and clear into eternity. 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Log in Your Own Eye

Tonight in our book study we were discussing The Cross of Christ, and the subject came up of dealing with a person who's down on himself. Some agreed that the person who's down on himself is sometimes more difficult to deal with (or at least tolerate) than a person who is high on himself. We discussed what you need in order to be ready to "deal with" lift him out or get him to stop; that a person focusing on himself does not have his focus where it belongs: On Christ and others. The more I pondered it the more complicated this subject became, because there are a number of ways to be down on yourself, though all of them do take your focus off of Christ and onto yourself, which is fraught with problems. 

A person might just be self-centered and focusing on their own inadequacies, the things that make him less "up to snuff" in the social which case there's really nothing better than to just snap out of it and realize that we all as humans share in that to some degree. A person might be dealing with an actual clinical depression that needs medical intervention. Or a person might be overwhelmed with personal problems and be dealing with a heavy load and perhaps depression on top of it. The solutions to any of these might be completely different: The first is a simple self-centeredness, and might be categorized as sin just for the focus being unnecessarily inward. The second is a complex focus on self that needs medical help and perhaps later a call to accountability if the medical help is not fully effective to lift the person back to functionality. The third might justifiably need someone to help shoulder the burdens of life that have become too heavy. It can be unclear to the outsider just which thing is going on without asking questions and seeking the root cause.

So in the discussion, I was pondering these things (being sensitive to it because I have been guilty of dwelling on my many inadequacies; I have dealt with depression, though never received medical help for it; and I have borne a load of difficulties that simultaneously limited my ability to function, also affecting my physical health, compounding the primary problems). I think of Job, whose friends are silent for a week, an admirable length of time in waiting to respond to Job in his pain. Their problem started, though, when they didn't know what to say. Like most of us, their solution to this was to start talking, and rather than lift Job out of his sorrow and grief, they add pain, false guilt, and the need to defend himself. 

This subject made me see Jesus' illustration of getting the log out of your own eye in a new light. I've always seen the meaning of this as being that the one person who intended to get the splinter out of the second person's eye was trying to solve the perceived sin of the second person, and that the problem was that the log in his own eye was a greater sin that blinded him to the problem. Well, I no longer think that the log or the splinter in all cases represent sin. I think the log represents anything that obstructs your ability to help another person with an issue. If you don't know the details of the difficulty, you might, like Job's friends, assume the problem is their sin when in reality it might not be. If you work on their problem without clarifying your vision regarding the nature of what needs to be solved, you can't help them solve it, and you might cause further damage. The splinter can represent any personal difficulty that provokes others to want to help solve it. It might be sin; it might be depression or grief; and it might be any variety or bundle of personal problems.

So then there is the matter of how to get the log out of your eye. I think the baseline equipping that we have to do so is first Bible study and prayer. Not that we always have time to go to the Bible when we see a person in need, but our lives need to be equipped; we need to be faithful in these disciplines, so that, abiding in Christ, we are given the necessary discernment, wisdom, compassion, boldness, mercy, and fitting words that can bring healing and if necessary, repentance to the person in need of help. Unarmed with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do nothing of spiritual value in our own strength. With Him, we can have the wisdom to ask questions, the discernment to realize the nature of the problem, and the attitude and words that can heal rather than add to the primary problem. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Oh to Have the Boldness of Luther!

I am reading The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther. It isn't the first book I would have picked up to read; I probably would have passed over it until I was at least 120. But a friend, one of the elders in our church, gave it to me, not because he had read it; it was new and he hadn't. I'm not sure why he wanted me to read it. But I'm almost halfway through it and one thing I can say: It is easy to see Luther's God-given passion for that which he believes and of which he is convinced. He is assured, unflinching, adamant, passionate. Erasmus has written a book on behalf of the Catholic Church (who Luther so thoroughly offended with his 92 theses), urging Luther to make peace with the head honchos there, and essentially saying that these issues are not worth the division that they bring. The weird thing about this book is that Luther's passionately argumentative style does not remind me of any Christian I know; it reminds me of my sister, who went on and on for pages in a letter once because she thought that from a passing remark I made that I don't like animals. (I don't mind animals; I just am glad not to have any.) She could be so passionate and attack me for pages over such a trivial issue; we as Christians on the other hand are entrusted with the mystery of the Gospel and the responsibility to care for one another. We have all the more reason to be passionate, and yet the Church today is pitiful in its weak and cowering attitude toward any opposition the Gospel brings.

Luther's writings show me how much that passion has gone from our Christianity. We know the truth (thanks in great part to Luther and his passionate stand for Bible truth: "Here I stand; I can do no other"), but most of us at best would give a flimsy sentence or two to anyone who opposed an issue that was central to our faith. Those of us who say more can expect to be called intolerant troublemakers, and divisive. This is one harm in our American Christian culture that definitely needs to turn completely around: the indignant opposition to biblical correction, admonishment, or exhortation of believers; it will cause us to miss out on a huge potential for growth and strength in our walk. The Church as a result can only expect to be poorly equipped when times of real persecution actually come. We seem to think that it is only God who should have the privilege of correction and admonishment, but this view only confirms our biblical illiteracy. The Scriptures are replete with passages that clearly exhibit God's desire for us to correct and be corrected in matters of the faith.

Christianity that is lived out elsewhere or which is historically evident and biblically prescribed differs so much from our American version. The differences are striking: Christians in other countries and throughout history have endured much more persecution and difficulty than we generally do; they face a very real possibility of dying for this faith that requires a clear and unflinching witness; because of these things, their Christianity is more surely authentic and their growth in faith and faithfulness is probably a far less gradual thing than here as a rule. I expect that people in other places and times grasp the harder lessons of the faith and have the passion to live a life of pleasing God and denying self. Part of this comes from the Scriptures, where people sold their property and gave the money and other belongings to the church so that no one had any lack (Acts 4:32-37), or sang when imprisoned (Acts 16:25), or shared the Gospel as soon as they were free (Acts 4:19-20, 5:42); where the witness of Christians results in thousands turning to Christ in one event (Acts 2:41). I know that wherever a believer lives, the struggle with sin and self-protection continues regardless of nationality. But persecution sifts the wheat from the chaff. Who is going to live casually or inauthentically for Christ in a hostile culture if living for Christ quite possibly means dying for Him?

Even though the American Christian doesn't generally have to fear much persecution, we are immersed in a narcissistic, private, self-protective, individualistic culture. So we don't readily welcome any inquiry or correction about ourselves, our sin nature (even though we all have it; that's one universal trait we have in common) and how we live our lives. Suggest to an American Christian that there's something amiss in their lives and their indignation and pushback is almost guaranteed. This isn't how the Scriptures paint the right response to correction. We are urged to address sin in others who claim Christ as their own; we are urged to welcome correction--both because speaking the truth can save a person from greater error and from wandering from the faith. I wish this were taught and encouraged more in the church. I wish it were expected and embraced among believers. It isn't, from my experience, and that will be to our harm and if it were possible, to diminish the glory that we are equipped to bring to Jesus Christ.

It appears in Ephesians that God put vocal people in the church to build it up, to raise new believers to maturity, to help put aside deception. We are to speak the truth to one another in love in order that the Church may grow into a functional whole:

Ephesians 4:11-15 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

It isn't just the pastor's job, or the Holy Spirit's job, to speak into the lives of the believers around us:

Hebrews 3:12-14 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

If we say something to someone that might turn him around in repentance, or correct a misconception about the faith, the results can be huge. This is definitely prescribed in the Scriptures:

James 5:19-20 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

It takes courage to speak up, especially in this culture. Courage and boldness are basic requirements for effective ministry. We need to pray that like Luther, we all are courageous and bold; pray for your friends and have them pray for you, so that the truth might be addressed in your times of fellowship, so that the Church as a whole might grow strong and true, as God intended.