Thursday, July 26, 2012

Perilous Extremes: Set Apart vs All Things to All People


(click here to read the first post in this series)
Another area where we can tend toward dangerous extremes in our interpretation and application of Scripture is our relationship with the world.  We need to pay close attention to the full counsel of Scripture on the issue.
2 Cor 6:14-18 reads:
  14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?
 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?
 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, "I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
 17 Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you,
 18 and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty."

“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers…go out from their midst...be separate from them…”  These are strong words that deserve some context.  In this passage Paul is addressing those who may have aligned themselves with some in the church who have opposed Paul.  By their rebellion they have shown they could possibly be unbelievers.  So Paul calls on the true believers to have nothing to do with the rebels. 
To be unequally yoked is to be hitched up or possibly crossbred with another animal of a different species.  Paul’s point is clear.  A believer has as much in common with an unbeliever as a horse does with a cow.  It is unnatural for them to be yoked together.  “What fellowship has light with darkness?”  The answer to the rhetorical question is “none.” 
Though Paul’s immediate concern is the situation in the church at Corinth, his message has broader application to all relationships between believers and unbelievers.  Believers ought not form close partnerships with unbelievers.  We typically apply this passage to marriage, which is an appropriate application, but there are other applications as well. 
But some have taken Paul’s words, particularly the admonition to “go out from their midst, and be separate from them…and touch no unclean thing,” and have gone to the extreme of having nothing whatsoever to do with unbelievers.  They do not know their neighbors or their co-workers because they are afraid of the ungodly influence on them and their families.  Caution about ungodly influences is wise, but to remove ourselves completely from society is not at all what Paul had in mind.
This is a perilous extreme because if we cut ourselves off from the world, we will be unable to obey Christ’s command to spread the gospel (Matt 28:19-20).  In fact, Paul corrected such a misconception in 1 Cor 5:9-10 when he wrote, I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people--not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.  Obviously, we are not to cut ourselves off completely from unbelievers. 
We’ve noted numerous times in our study of the Sermon on the Mount that we are to shine for God’s glory in the world: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).  We can’t shine before others if we have hidden ourselves from the world.
Jesus Himself reached out to the lost (Luke 19:1-10).  Paul claimed to be “all things to all people that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor9:19-23).  Clearly, we must engage the world and reach out to unbelievers with the gospel.  But we must be careful because it is possible to take this teaching to a perilous extreme as well.  Some appeal to passages like these and use them to defend evangelistic practices in which the church becomes like the world in order to reach the world.  Many churches have used explicit, sexually-charged sermon series to draw the lost into the church.  I have seen numerous things on church websites so vulgar that I would never put them on this blog.
Many of the changes that we have seen in the style of worship and d├ęcor of the church in recent years have been made so that the world will think that we are just like them.  Bible studies in bars, cussing in sermons, and erotic dancing lessons in the fellowship hall are born out of an evangelistic philosophy based upon taking some of the passages above and holding them in isolation from other passages in Scripture, such as 1 John 2:15 (“Do not love the world or the things in the world”) and 1Thess 5:22 (“Abstain from every form of evil”). 
Why is this a perilous extreme?  There are at least two reasons.  First, becoming like the world to win the world sabotages Christ’s intention behind calling us to shine in the world.  The whole point is so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16).  The point is for us to be different, godly.  It is our difference that causes people to glorify God.  Second, when we move toward the worldly in our lifestyle and behavior in order to get close to the lost, we run the risk of falling pray to the temptations of the world.  As we read in Proverbs 6:27, Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?  In Galatians 6:1, we are warned to guard against temptation when dealing with sin inside the church.  How much more cautious should we be with sin outside the church?
God has called us to be separate from the world in our close relationships and in our conduct.  He has also called us to be lights in the world, spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth.  If we are going to be faithful, we must maintain the balance that only comes from interpreting Scripture with Scripture and avoiding perilous extremes.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is Theology Practical?


Not long ago I heard a pastor mention that he wasn’t “really into theology.”  He said, “I just don’t see how it’s practical.”  Of course, I almost choked.  I agree that many people don’t see the practical implications of theology, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t practical.  It just means that people aren’t take the time to really think about it.
Just a cursory look at five attributes of God shows how one of the most seemingly impractical areas of the theology is intensely practical.  One of the most practical points of theology is God’s sovereignty.  The doctrine of God’s sovereignty states that God plans and carries out His perfect will as He alone knows is best, over all that is in heaven and earth, and He does so without failure or defeat.  Ephesians 1:11 refers to God as the one “who works all things according to the counsel of His will.”   Likewise, Daniel 4:35 says of Him, he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?"  This attribute is important for the believer because it affirms that everything that happens in our lives is part of God’s plan.  There is no such thing as a truly random event.  Even the most difficult things in my life happen for a reason.  That’s practical.
A second important attribute is God’s goodness.  Goodness is the intrinsic disposition of God by which He shows kindness to His creatures.   Psalm 119:68 reads, You are good and do good.  Psa 145:17 says that The LORD is…kind in all his works.  When we hold this attribute in connection with His sovereignty, it reassures us that what He is doing in the lives of His people is being done with good and kind intentions.  God is not capricious and uncaring.  His kindness is demonstrated by what He sovereignly wills in our lives, even though we do not always understand how that can be.  That’s practical.
God’s omniscience is a third important attribute.  That God is omniscient means that He knows all that can be known.  He knows everything actual and possible, in the past, present, and future.  Isaiah 40-48 shows the repeated contrast between God and the false gods of the Israelites, with the most prominent difference being that God knows all things (particularly the future) and the false gods do not.  This means first of all that we cannot hide our sin from God.  He sees all things.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).  Second, God knows what is best for us in a way that we never could, so we ought never second-guess Him.  That’s practical.
God’s wisdom is a fourth important attribute.  God’s wisdom is the application of His infinite knowledge to accomplish the best ends by the best means possible.  Proverbs 3:19 reads, The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.  Paul marvels at the wisdom of God in Romans 11:33, Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!  This attribute should be a comfort to me, knowing that the means God uses to accomplish His will in my life are always the best means, and the ends are always the best ends.  Again, I should not second-guess God.  That’s practical.
A fifth crucial attribute of God is His forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is a gift given to the repentant through which He promises not to use their sins against them.  Psalm 86:5 says, For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.  Psalm 32:1-2a says, Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity.  That God is forgiving is a comfort to those who have repented and an enticement to repent for those who have not.  Also, that God has forgiven us means that we should forgive others (Eph 4:32).  That’s practical.
There are many, many more attributes of God than we could ever blog about, all of which have some practical meaning to our lives.  Further, the attributes of God are just one branch of theology, a drop in the bucket of all the doctrines that have practical significance to our lives.  The problem is not that theology is not practical.  Rather, the problem is that we do not take the time to think hard about what the different doctrines have to say about how we should live.  May the Lord grant us to do the hard thinking necessary to be faithful to Him!

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Friday, July 20, 2012

Perilous Extremes: God works vs I work


Theological error frequently results from taking a legitimate biblical truth too far by holding it in isolation from other biblical teaching.  For example, some people latch onto the biblical imperative to be “set apart” from the world, and take it to the extreme of having absolutely no contact with the lost (2 Cor 6:14-18).  On the other hand, some latch onto the idea of being “all things to all people” for the sake of evangelism, and take it to the extreme of adopting worldly ways in their personal life in order to attract lost people (1 Cor 9:19-23).  We are prone to perilous extremes and we do it in so many areas of belief and practice.  It is crucial to our walk with the Lord that we be aware of our tendency to do this.    
So, this is the first installement of a blog series on some of the truths that we tend to take to extremes and how we must strive to keep them in balance.  Many of us are prone to extremes in our view of sanctification.  Sanctification is the process that begins at conversion and by which we are transformed into the image of Christ.  In other words, it is the process of us becoming more like the Lord.  The New Testament is full of teaching on this subject.  The crucial question is how does it work?  Who accomplishes this transformation?
Well, the Bible teaches that sanctification is a work of God.  Paul writes in 1 Thess 5:23, Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely.  Specifically, it is God the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us.  Peter wrote of “the sanctification of the Spirit” and Paul wrote of “sanctification by the Spirit” (1 Pet 1:2; 2 Thess 2:13).  The Spirit produces in us the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:16-18).  Paul tells us in Phil 2:13 that God is at work in us to “will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Likewise, the writer of Hebrews writes of the Lord “working in you that which is pleasing in his sight” (Heb 13:21).
This is undeniable biblical truth.  God is at work in our sanctification.  Yet some people take this truth to the extreme, holding it in isolation from the rest of the Bible’s teaching on sanctification.  They live as if the Bible teaches that only God works in our sanctification to the exclusion of any responsibility on the part of the believer.  Consequently, because they believe that God alone is responsible for our progression toward Christlikeness, they themselves put forth little effort at all to obey God’s Word.  Some have called this the “let go and let God” model of sanctification.  It is not biblical.  It is a perilous extreme.  It is perilous because it can serve to desensitize us to both sin and righteousness.  The flesh will always win out in this scenario.  It can lead to laziness in our Christian walk.
The truth is that God’s role in our sanctification is not the only thing that the Bible teaches about sanctification.  God’s Word also shows that we work in our sanctification.  Peter exhorts us to strive for obedience in 2 Pet 1:5: make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 
It’s in Heb 12:14 as well: Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  In 2 Cor 7:1, we are called to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.  The truth that we are to work in sanctification is implied in every imperative in the Bible, for every imperative calls upon us to do something! 
And yet, as with the truth of God’s role in sanctification, some take our role to an extreme, holding it in isolation from the rest of the Bible’s teaching on the subject.  They come to believe and live as if they alone sanctify themselves, so they attempt to live the Christian life in their own power.  I would call this fleshly striving and it also is a perilous extreme.  Any success that is had will result in pride and every failure that happens will result in frustration and discouragement.
We must hold both truths as they are taught in Scripture.  God works and we work.  Both truths are found side by side in Phil 2:12-13: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  It is God’s power that sanctifies us and so we trust in Him to empower us as we pursue obedience. 
I’ve used the illustration before about the fuel in a car.  Two things are necessary for a car to move: gas in the tank and a foot pressing the pedal.  Without gas in the tank, the driver can mash the pedal until his foot is sore, but the car will not budge.  Conversely, the car may have a full tank of gas, but if the driver doesn’t press the pedal, the car will go nowhere.  The Holy Spirit is the gas in the tank of our sanctification.  He powers the locomotion, but we still have to push the pedal.  We still have to strive to obey. 
Trust and Obey is a wonderful old hymn that we should keep in mind as we pursue Christlikeness.  God’s power is at work in us and we must trust him for the ability and desire to obey while simultaneously striving to obey.
Let’s keep a close watch on ourselves for signs that we are erring on the side of either of these perilous extremes.  And may the Lord be glorified as we become more like His Son.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Prayers for Providence

On June 7, we had a day of fasting and prayer for the church.  We met that evening and prayed together, taking turns bringing specific requests to the Lord.  Several people have requested that I post these requests on the blog so that everyone could continue to pray about them.  I thought it was a great idea.  May the Lord make us a people who are mighty in prayer.  Here is the list:


Please pray that the Lord would humble us with a deep sense of our dependence upon Him. 
Please pray that the Lord would forgive us for sins we have committed.
Please pray that we would have hearts of forgiveness for those who have sinned against us.
Please thank the Lord for the gospel and the life that we have in Christ.
Please pray that the Lord would grant us the desire and ability to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel.
Please pray that the Lord would work in us to promote and maintain the unity of the body.
Please pray that the Lord would give us hearts and minds eager to extend the gospel of Christ to the lost and hurting world around us.
Please thank the Lord for all that He has done and is doing in our church.
Please pray that the Lord would give wisdom to the leadership of the church.
Please pray that the Lord would grant us all to grow in Christlikeness.
Please pray that the Lord would cause the body to build itself up in love.
Please pray that the Lord would give us a God-centered view of our trials.
Please pray that He would use our trials for our good and His glory.
Please pray that the Lord would grant us a renewed vigor to pursue Christ in His Word.
Please pray that the Lord would make us a people of prayer. 
Please pray that the Lord would give us a renewed passion to worship Him alone.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Is All Revelation Equal?


Sometimes in church life, when making a case for bringing a secular business model or a secular counseling technique into the church, one will argue, “all truth is God’s truth.”  This may be followed by the claim that all truth is general revelation and as such is from God and should be trusted.  Something doesn’t necessarily have to be found in the Bible in order to be true and useful.
 
But there is a big difference between special revelation and its authority compared to general revelation and its authority.  Both are acts of God’s grace in making known to us truth that would not be known otherwise.  Both are helpful to us.  But they are not on an equal playing field.
General revelation is general in two senses.  First of all, it is general in scope – it goes to everyone.  Second, it is general in substance; that is, it delivers general, not specific, truth.  It is broad in nature.  It shows truths like “God is divine and powerful” (Rom 1:20).  It does not deliver detailed truths like the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Bible speaks of two avenues of general revelation.  The first is creation, which Psalm 19 depicts as revealing truths about God: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.  Likewise, Romans 1:20 shows how God has revealed truth about Himself in creation: For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. A second avenue of general revelation is the human conscience.  Romans 2:15 teaches that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them… 
The benefit of general revelation, according to Scripture, is not the same for the unbeliever and believer.  In Romans 1:19-32, we find that general revelation serves to expose the heart of the unbeliever and his rebellion against God, and brings upon him God's just judgment.  There is no saving benefit.  For the unbeliever, it is altogether negative.  For the believer, general revelation bears witness to the glory of God.  For the believer, general revelation is altogether positive.  
Special revelation is completely different.  It is special in substance, which means that it is more specific, more detailed than general revelation.  For example, knowledge of salvation can only come through special revelation.  It depends upon details not available in our observation of creation, nor in our conscience.  Rom 10:17 reads, So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. 
There are three main avenues of special revelation.  The first is through personal encounter, as when God appeared to Moses in a burning bush in Exodus 3.  The second is through propositional revelation, which is what we have in the Bible.  The third is the Incarnation – the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The benefit of special revelation is also different for the unbeliever and believer.  If the unbeliever is judged for rejecting general revelation about God, how much more will he be judged for rejecting special revelation?  As Peter writes of false teachers, it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them (2Pet 2:21).  Special revelation will serve to condemn the unrepentant sinner.  On the other hand, for the believer, Scripture is profitable to equip him for every good work (2Tim 3:16-17). 
When we think about these two kinds of revelation it becomes obvious that one is superior to the other in terms of its benefit and authority.  General revelation, because it is limited in scope and substance, is only useful in a limited sense.  It is not sufficient to lead us to life and godliness.  Special revelation, on the other hand, is sufficient to make us “complete” (2Tim 3:17), to guide us in all matters pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3-4).  Some might argue that the conscience (considered general revelation) can serve as a guide in how we live and make moral decisions.  This is true, but it is far inferior to Scripture (special revelation) since the conscience is weak and fallible (1Cor 8:7-13; 1Tim 4:1-3;Titus 1:15).  Our consciences should be educated by Scripture.  
When the general revelation argument is used to bring models and techniques from the secular world into the church, most often the model or technique does not qualify as general revelation.  I'll use secular counseling techniques as an example.  First, we do not find support in Scripture for the idea that general revelation involves "secular" truth.  Each passage in Scripture dealing with general revelation shows that it pertains to truth about who God is, and in a limited sense, what He requires (ex. Psa 19; Rom 1:19-32; 2:12-16).  However, secular counseling techniques like psychotherapy are inherently godless.  Therefore, they do not biblically qualify as general revelation.  Second, secular counseling techniques are not general in scope or substance.  In other words, they are not truths obvious to everyone, nor are they truths that are non-specific.  To the contrary, they are ideas that occur to only a scant few and they are extremely specific in nature.  Third, secular counseling techniques frequently directly contradict special revelation, which true general revelation can never do.  For example, much secular counseling theory is based upon the premise that man is basically good until he is corrupted by negative experiences.  But Scripture teaches that all men are sinners by nature (Rom 3:23; Eph 2:1-3).
Again, we must be very careful what sources of "truth" we consider authoritative in the church and in our lives.  Special revelation is the only revelation we can trust completely on matters pertaining to life and godliness.  And as it is objectively recorded in Scripture, it is the final authority as well.  
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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