Friday, June 27, 2014

*Simple Faith

Two curly-haired children stood in front of their father as he knelt down to hug them. They were dressed in their best clothes: Jimmy in dark pants, white shirt, suspenders, and bowtie, and Jenny in a pink dress, white shoes, and ribbons in her golden hair. It was not every day that they went down to the train station to see their father off on a long trip.

Daddy was talking. "I'm going to be gone for a while—I don't know how long, but I'll be back before you know it. I have to take care of some business out of the country, and once that's done, I'm coming home to stay. So, mind your Momma and do your chores to help her out. You'll both probably be a foot taller when I get back, but I will be back, I promise."

He gave their mother a kiss and a long hug, and then he was gone. The train pulled out of the station, and they waved like mad as they watched it chug away. Soon, there was nothing else to see, so they sadly returned home, changed clothes, and went about their daily routine.

Days passed, then weeks, then months. Daddy's business overseas seemed to be taking longer than he had thought. Momma told them not to worry, that he would be back with them before they knew it. If they just kept themselves busy, the time would go faster, she said. So Jimmy and Jenny plunged into their school work, did all their chores, read long books, played with the neighbor kids, and grew like beansprouts.

Yet, Daddy still had not come home. As they often did, the children sat on the porch swing in the cool of the evening just before bedtime, watching the fireflies come out. Jenny suspected that Jimmy was down, and he proved it a few minutes later. "I don't think Daddy's coming back," he said. "If he was, he'd be here already. He's forgotten about us."

"That's not true!" said Jenny fiercely, almost shouting. "Daddy said he would come back, so he is coming back!"

Jimmy just shook his head, saying, "How do you know? You're just a little girl."

"So what if I'm a little girl!" she yelled. "Daddy promised! He'll be back soon, just you wait!"

They had similar arguments over the next weeks, Jimmy always doubting, Jenny always certain that their father would arrive home soon. She looked for him everywhere, expecting him to be walking up the drive when she peeked out the front window or be at the train station when they went into town. Jimmy mocked her for a silly goose, but she never wavered in her certainty that their Daddy would come back just as he had said.

Then, suddenly, he was home. They woke up one morning and stumbled out to the kitchen for breakfast, and Daddy was there, kneeling in front of them, giving them the biggest, longest hug that they had ever had! He told them how much he had missed them and how he had wanted to come home sooner, but things had just not worked out until the last few weeks. Then he had hurried back to be with them again for good.

Jenny shed tears of pure joy, refusing to let her father go, but Jimmy was bawling like a baby, choking out, "I'm sorry, Daddy! I'm sorry!"

"What do you mean?" Daddy asked, concerned. "There's nothing to be sorry about."

Wiping away tears, Jimmy said, "I didn't believe you were coming back. Jenny said you would, but it had been so long, and you weren't here, so I thought you would never come back to us."

"Well, here I am!" Daddy said. "Now you know you can trust my word."


While this may be just a story about a little girl's simple faith, it captures the essence of the biblical concept of faith. Sometimes, we tend to make things a bit too theological and difficult, wanting to know all the facets and permutations of a doctrine, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of faith, it is trusting Him, taking God at His word and believing it. In its most basic form, faith can be expressed in the sentiment, "If God said it, that's good enough for me!"

We grapple with the definition that the author of Hebrews pens in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." We look in various Bible translations for one that will make it plain, something like "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see" (New English Translation). We delve into the Greek words for a clearer picture of the author's intent. We pore through commentaries for learned opinions about the verse—and we may still come away scratching our heads.

We know from verses like Hebrews 11:1 that faith is not simple in all its theological ramifications, but in its everyday use, it is not difficult. While He does not use the word "faith" on this occasion, it is what Jesus alludes to in Luke 11:28, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" His declaration is reminiscent of the times when people—usually Gentiles—came to Him for healing and simply believed that, in saying the sick person would be healed, all was well. That was the case when the centurion asked Him to heal his servant, and Jesus "marveled, and said to those who followed, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel'" (Matthew 8:10).

The apostle Paul, speaking of the faith of Abraham, calls him "the father of us all" (Romans 4:16). What marked the greatness of Abraham's faith? Paul answers for us in Romans 4:3, quoting Genesis 15:6: "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." The patriarch trusted God's promise that his descendants from the then-unborn Isaac would be as the number of stars in the heavens (Genesis 15:3-5). God's promise was good enough for him. It would happen just as God had said.

His faith in God's Word sustained him when, years later, God tested him: "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and . . . offer him . . . as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (Genesis 22:2). How could his offspring be as numerous as the stars if Isaac died before having children? So, when Isaac asked where the lamb for the offering was, Abraham answered in faith, "My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering" (verses 7-8). He went so far as to bind his son and raise the knife, knowing, in faith, that God would intervene or perform a resurrection so that His promise would not be broken.

Such is the simple faith God desires us to display in the course of our daily lives. Paul teaches that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). Faith comes and grows when we hear God's Word and believe it, trusting God to do as He has said. So David writes in Psalm 37:5: "Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass." That is a promise we can count on!

Friday, June 20, 2014

*Christian Obedience

It is commonly thought—if not commonly taught—that obedience plays little part in New Testament Christianity. People are urged, "Believe in Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." They are told to love the Lord and have faith. But obey? If the law of God has been done away, what need is there of obedience? If God's grace covers all sin and works avail us nothing, then what place does obedience fill? Did not Jesus remove lawkeeping from the salvation equation?

Many professing Christians reveal the deficiency of their theological knowledge by believing that such things are the end-all of Christianity. They have been hoodwinked by preachers who adhere to the "once saved, always saved" line of Protestant teaching, a false doctrine easily refuted (see, for example, Matthew 7:16-20; John 15:6Hebrews 6:4-810:26-31; etc.). The lure of "easy grace" has filled the pews of many a church with people eager for life after death but unwilling to change their present lives by living according to the teachings of God's Word.

It is true that the word "obey" is found just a few times in the gospels and never in a command such as "obey the law" or "obey God's commandments." But that does not mean that Jesus does not command us to obey—He just uses other words. For instance, He tells the rich young ruler, "But if you want to enter into life [eternal life], keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). It does not get much clearer than that.

However, this instance is not the only time He says such a thing. In Luke 11:28, He tells a crowd gathered to hear Him, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" In His final instructions to His disciples before His arrest, He appeals to their affection for Him, saying, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15), and a little later, He restates this, taking it beyond them to Christians of all times:
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me. (John 14:23-24)
Finally, in John 15:10, Jesus reveals that we have to be just as diligent in obeying Him as He was in obeying His Father in heaven: "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love."

From the mouth of our Savior Himself, obedience is plainly a very New Testament, very Christian, teaching.

In this handful of statements, He was quite pointed about what we must obey: the commandments, the word of God, His words (which are the Father's words), and His and His Father's commandments. Plus, He gives us incentive to do this! We should obey His teaching if we want to have eternal life, if we want to demonstrate our love for Christ, if we want to be blessed, if we want God and Christ to make their home with us by the Holy Spirit, and if we want to have and abide in the love of the Father and the Son. That is some healthy motivation!

It is worth looking at these from the negative side, just to see how disastrous it is to refuse to obey God and His Word. Thus, if we do not obey Him and His commands, we will not enter into life, we will not be blessed, we will not show love toward Christ, we will not have the Father and Son living in us by the Spirit of God, and we will not have the love of God in us. For a Christian to lack these things is utterly devastating! In fact, it would mean that he is not really a Christian! (Consider, for instance, Paul's statement in Romans 8:14, defining a true Christian.)

Even when people realize that they should obey God and His commands, they may still scratch their heads over why obedience is necessary to the salvation process. If we are saved by grace through faith—as Ephesians 2:8 makes obvious—and not justified by works of lawkeeping (Galatians 2:16), what good do they do? Is not obedience to God's law useless or at the best, merely dutiful or ceremonial?

Those who ask these kinds of questions have a limited understanding of what God is doing with humanity. In essence, they believe that God's sole purpose is to "save" people from their sins, for that is what Christ's sacrifice accomplishes—the shedding of His precious blood pays the penalty for sin, redeeming us from eternal death, and with His righteousness covering our corruption, provides us access to a relationship with the Father (see Romans 5:6-11). This is a wonderful divine act of grace because we do not deserve such merciful treatment.

The truth is, however, that salvation does not end there. One of the apostle Paul's comments in Romans 5 hints broadly at this: "Much more, having been reconciled [to the Father], we shall be saved by His life" (verse 10). Christ's death does not save us, but His resurrection to eternal life does! Not only does it make possible our future resurrection to eternal life (see I Corinthians 15:20-23), but it also gives Him the opportunity to work with those whom God calls to bring them to spiritual maturity. Notice how Paul describes Christ's ongoing work with the church:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
As Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23Colossians 1:18), Christ now works to bring us "to a perfect man," that is, He is completing a spiritual process to fashion us in His own image. Paul calls this "the new man" in Ephesians 4:22-24: "Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness." Theologically, this process is called "sanctification."

This is where our obedience comes into play. Paul writes in Hebrews 5:9, "Having been perfected, [Christ] became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him." Keeping God's commandments—His instructions—will guide us in learning what God requires of us and in impressing His character image upon us. God's laws do not save us, but they provide a pattern of behavior that pleases Him because such behavior is a reflection of His own. Obedience, then, becomes a tool that we use in conjunction with Christ to grow in righteousness and prepare for the Kingdom of God.

Friday, June 13, 2014

*Called to Follow

If there is one great principle of Christian living, it is walking in Christ's footsteps (I John 2:6). Sounds easy, but putting it into practice is one of the most difficult tasks of a Christian's life. If we succeed, however, we will be one of those to whom He says in the resurrection, "Well done, good and faithful servant." We will have not only lived as He did, we will have put on His character image, the great goal of the Christian life (Romans 8:29).

In Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus begins to call His disciples, particularly the pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John:
And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." They immediately left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately, they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.
The sparse prose of the gospel account makes it seem as if the four of them just dropped their nets, jumped off the boats, and never looked back!

Evidently, this was Jesus' first command to each of His disciples. Maybe He did not say these exact words to each one, but it seems that Matthew gives this account as an example of Jesus' pattern in calling them: He commanded them, "Follow Me." And they immediately left what they were doing and followed Him.

On the surface, "Follow Me" may appear to mean simply, "Go where I go," but there is far more to it. The disciples would learn over the next three and a half years that "Follow Me" meant a great deal more than just "Walk behind Me." It also means "Do what I do," "Live as I do," and "Experience what I experience." Ultimately, it also means "Suffer and die like Me." Yet, on the other hand, it also means "Share eternal life and My rewards, too." That simple command runs the entire gamut of Christian life and potential.

From a negative perspective, Luke 9:57-62 considers the costs of being a follower of Christ:
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, "Lord, I will follow You wherever You go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." And another also said, "Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house." But Jesus said to him, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
Clearly, following Jesus is neither easy nor risk-free. Its sacrifices and hardships are sometimes severe. It involves a commitment that most people are just not willing to make because true discipleship involves absolute devotion and dedication to Christ Himself. Thus, Jesus said these things, testing these men, finding out what was really in their hearts—if they were willing to commit themselves to Him, to His way of life, and to His purposes.

In the final verse, He lets us know the bottom line of what is required: One who is fit for God's Kingdom is willing to give all. German clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived under the Nazi regime, wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he sums up the Christian calling with a now well-known quotation, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

In this passage, Luke records three instances in which someone gives an excuse to refuse Christ's calling to follow Him, illustrating three general areas in which people fail. The first reason is that the Christian life is one of discomfort. Jesus tells the man that He did not have a place to lay His head. In God's Word, Christians are often called "strangers" and "sojourners." We are travelers going through a land or residing only temporarily. In a spiritual sense, we are not citizens of the lands in which we live (Philippians 3:20). So, as travelers along the road of life toward the Kingdom of God, we cannot expect to have all the comforts of home.

We cannot allow the accoutrements of this world and of this life to hold us back in our devotion to Christ. Our homes, jobs, vacations, clothes, pastimes—none of these things compare to the importance of this Christian life. We must be willing to forsake all of these things if they inhibit our relationship with God. It may make life uncomfortable, but the rewards are wonderful.

The second reason some fail is because the Christian life is sacrificial. The man asks Jesus if he could first bury his father, but He answers, "No. You go and preach the Kingdom of God." We, because of our calling, must often forsake the customary duties, privileges, associations, and activities of normal life. The Christian's focus, Jesus says, is on the living, those whom God has called and given the truth, whose focus is also on God's work (see John 6:29).

When God calls a person, His will comes first. We may end up "missing out" on many of this world's activities. Some people miss them so much that they feel short-changed by God. Whether we pass or fail on this point depends on our priorities. If our ties to the world and its ways are too strong, we will be unwilling to sacrifice them to follow Christ. To be a true disciple, He says, we have to cut many or most of those ties.

The third reason people refuse Christ's call follows from the second: The Christian life demands new loyalties. The third man wanted to say farewell to his close friends and family. Jesus' reply is that once we commit to God's way, we cannot turn back, or we will be considered unfit. Many Christians are the only ones called from their particular families. They often find that, over time, they must forsake their own blood to a degree because they discover that they have little in common with them. Their ways of life are so dramatically divergent that separation becomes natural. In the church under a new and better way of life, they find a new identity, a new family, and a new purpose.

It is said that blood is thicker than water, but Jesus warns that our devotion to Him and God's way of life must be stronger. It requires an act of will to make our devotion to Him stronger than our blood ties. The Holy Spirit will not just infuse us to be totally committed to God. We have to set our wills to believe and follow through with making God our first priority in life, to go where He says to go. This is the new loyalty that Christ's calling demands.

In this way, we begin to live the life of Christ.

Friday, June 6, 2014

*Our Awesome Calling

"Hello, sir! This is Jane Doe from XYZ Vacations! How are you today? I'm calling to let you know that you've won a free three-day, two-night vacation at one of our gorgeous new condominiums on the fabulous Florida coast! Isn't that fantastic? We know you'll love these two-bedroom, two-bath condos with all the amenities that you've come to expect of luxury vacation homes. And, of course, our property is centrally located among all the area's exciting venues for shopping, eating, entertainment, and sports! When can we expect you here?"

Most adults have received such a call. Even more likely, we have received an invitation like this in the mail, printed on glossy paper and adorned with rich, full-color images of beautiful beach scenes. We are told, in fine print, that we are on the hook for all other expenses, including travel costs and food, and that we will be required to endure a two- or three-hour "presentation" (read: sales pitch), during which all manner of inducements will be used to get us to buy a couple of weeks of annual rentals. It is a classic advertising gimmick.

Christianity includes a much nobler invitation to a good deal: God calls each person to a relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ, and thus to Him through Christ. Jesus speaks of this in John 6:44: "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day." He essentially repeats this in verse 65: "Therefore I said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father."

When we parse what He says in these verses, we learn some amazing things. First is the remarkable fact that the Father Himself initiates the relationship. The great, almighty, and omniscient God, Ruler of the universe, decides to invite or summon a particular human being into fellowship with His Son. He does not consider such a task to be beneath Him, but He takes a personal interest in each individual called into His church. He knows each of them long before they ever thought of Him (consider Psalm 139:13Jeremiah 1:5Romans 8:29).

Second, Jesus explicitly asserts that no one can come to Him except through the Father's calling. While most people, even nominal Christians, believe that they can find God if they seek Him long and hard enough, the Bible disagrees. David tells us in Psalm 14:2-3: "The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one." The apostle Paul repeats this in Romans 3:11, "There is none who seeks after God." Human beings are milling about in a world of profound religious confusion—worshipping thousands of gods of their own making, seeking gods to please themselves—but to know and worship the true God, they must be granted access by the Father.

Third, our Savior uses an interesting word to picture what God does to summon us: The Father "draws" us. "Draws" is translated from the Greek wordhelkúö, which in its most literal sense can also mean "to drag" (see Acts 16:1921:30James 2:6)—and with some of us, it may well have happened with us kicking and screaming! A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament,Third Edition (BDAG) provides a helpful nuance of this word's meaning:
To move an object from one area to another in a pulling motion, draw, with implication that the object being moved is incapable of propelling itself or in the case of pers. [sic] is unwilling to do so voluntarily, in either case with implication of exertion on the part of the mover. . . .
This explanation reinforces the points we have already seen. When the Father initiates His calling, the individual does not have the capability to move himself into a relationship with Him, nor would he do so voluntarily, being at enmity with God (see Romans 8:7). God, therefore, must make the effort to reach out to the individual and open the way for fellowship with Him and His Son. But how does He do this?

In Hosea 11:3-4, God speaks of His treatment of Israel, "I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by their arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck." In a similar vein, Paul writes in Romans 11:5, "Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace." Here, the apostle uses the term "election" in a similar sense as Jesus speaks of few being chosen (Matthew 20:1622:14), an idea parallel to being drawn to Christ. The Father elects or selects only a few to understand the truth and have a relationship with Him and His Son, and He does this out of love by His grace. That is, His calling is a freely given gift; nothing that we are or have done compels God to draw us to Christ.

God's calling, then, is by grace, but what does He do to call a person? John 8:43, where Jesus is arguing with some Jews, provides a clue: "Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word." They were physically hearing His words, but they were incapable of spiritually comprehending His meaning. Yet, converted Christians can understand Him. Thus, part of the miracle of God's calling is that, through His Spirit (I Corinthians 2:10-16), the Father opens the mind to spiritual understanding, and as Paul explains it, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17).

In this way, He gives us the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8), by which we can truly believe and then act upon what He says. We can see this in the calling of Lydia, whom Paul met in Philippi: "The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul" (Acts 16:14), and she was baptized soon thereafter.

The Bible tells us that God usually chooses the salt of the earth—the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised of the world (I Corinthians 1:27-28), but our goal is to become "a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (I Peter 2:9). In other words, we have not been called to remain "just as we are." We have a "heavenly" (Hebrews 3:1) and "a holy calling" (II Timothy 1:9), one that we must "walk worthy of" (Ephesians 4:1).

Our calling is no gimmick. The Father has summoned, invited, us to the greatest purpose any human being can be asked to participate in: "to be conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 8:29), to prepare to be firstfruits of His spiritual harvest (James 1:18Revelation 14:4), to be kings and priests in His Kingdom (Revelation 1:65:10), and to be the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9). As the author of Hebrews urges us, "See that you do not refuse Him who speaks" (Hebrews 12:25).