Sunday, December 30, 2007

Paul's Doctrine (Part 4)

Imagine that a letter arrives. It claims to be an official letter from a legal representative of the court. It says…

“I would prefer to tell you this personally, but have not been able to do so. Acting in my role as a legal representative of the court, I have very good news for you. You will not be required to serve any prison time, or pay any penalty. In addition, you will be given everything you need to live comfortably and confidently. The only requirement is that you maintain a residence within the jurisdiction of this court.

How would you respond?

  • Would you compose a reply that challenges the court decision by asking “What do you mean I don’t have to serve prison time? What have I done to deserve any prison time? Why am I being given the award? Why do I have to keep a residence in this jurisdiction?
  • Would you start packing to move to another jurisdiction?
  • Would you jump for joy, and begin celebrating?

Most of us think we would do the third, but in reality, we do the first AND the second.

Paul wrote, in so many words… “I am speaking as an official representative of the all powerful deity. I have good news for you. God will use His power to rescue you from penalty and give you the ability to live in comfort and confidence. The only thing you need to do is have faith in Him.” (Romans 1:16, 17)

Rather than rejoice, people in Paul’s time and ours start asking questions and challenging the offer.

  • Why do I deserve a penalty?
  • Why should I get a penalty, when others are worse than me?
  • What other options do I have to get out of this penalty I may deserve?

Does asking those questions sound like having faith in Him? Of course not! That’s how we are really taking the second option (moving to another jurisdiction and invalidating the gift), when we begin on the first option (challenging and questioning the offer). The questioning and challenging IS moving away from a position that acknowledges the jurisdiction and authority of God.

Why do we choose such a bizarre, self-destructive, course of action? The same reason we deserve the penalty to begin with. Questioning and challenging the good news confirms and further entrenches the guilt. We refuse to recognize that God has jurisdiction, and that He desires our best interest. (Romans 1:20)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Paul's Doctrine (Part 3)

Some positions require a nuanced explanation. In a recent Presidential debate, the moderator asked the candidates to raise their hands if they believed that “global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity.”

One of the candidates refused. “I’m not doing hand shows today, no hand shows.” The moderator tried to force a yes or no answer to the question but the candidate refused. He made it clear that he would be happy to answer the question if he could take a minute to give a full explanation.

Sometimes a topic is important enough, that a simple answer isn’t accurate enough to be helpful. That’s the kind of topic Paul has tackled here. In that vein, and like the politician, Paul must embark on several clarifying arguments as he explains the gospel.

If we summarize his teaching so far, we could do so as…

1) Being rescued depends on God’s power and generous mercy.

2) No-one deserves His generous mercy because everyone has sinned, and sin is rooted in denying His power and generous mercy.

Paul has taught this gospel before. I think he knows the misunderstandings and accusations people commonly make about it. As the text will later show, one misunderstanding of the gospel Paul taught is a wrong conclusion drawn from the last two points.

“If everyone has rejected God and turned to sin, and no-one deserves to be saved, but God saves people anyway, then it doesn’t really matter how I act, or whether I sin or not. I might as well ‘sin big’ and show God’s grace even more.”

Chapter 2:1-16 is Paul’s answer to this common misunderstanding. He explains that God will judge every person, every action, and every intent.

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment is revealed! He will reward each one according to his works (Romans 2:5-6)

It’s worth noting that the mind bent away from God, can take the greatest “good news” imaginable and turn it into license to sin. Paul notes this in verse 4.

You surely don't think much of God's wonderful goodness or of his patience and willingness to put up with you. Don't you know that the reason God is good to you is because he wants you to turn to him? (Contemporary English Version)

But the main point is that Gods generous mercy should not make us forget that sin and righteousness still matter.

Romans 2:1-16 If you judge anyone, you basically condemn yourself by agreeing that judgment should be given and should be based on works. (Which I just pointed out condemns everyone.) In contrast, God’s judgment is based on the attitude and faith of the person, not just the deeds. Don’t think that pointing at others that have done worse things, will get you off. Don’t imagine that God is too merciful to punish anyone, so you can go ahead and sin. Doing that, will just making your judgment worse because He will surely judge. He will judge on the bases of faith, and deeds, not on some arbitrary or inequitable scale. He will punish those whose deeds are selfish and disobedient. He will reward those whose faith and deeds are right. Knowing what’s right or coming from the right background is not important; having the right faith and the right deeds matters. In fact, there are people who have never heard all of God’s truth, but they still have the right attitude and many of the right deeds, they prove that the essential truths are evident in creation. They prove that His truth is evident unless it is deliberately suppressed. They will be judged by the standards of the gospel I am preaching. (God will apply His power and mercy to anyone that has the faith He is looking for.)

Anybody Need a Star?

Have you ever envied the “three wise men” of Christmas tradition? I don’t envy them a long Camel ride, or even having enough gold to spare giving some away. What I really envy is their star. They started on a trip with a clear objective… follow the star.

I wish I had a star to follow. I spend far too much time trying to decide which goal I should be pursuing right now. Nothing wrong with writing, but maybe my time spent writing this would be better spent writing a note to my mother. If I just had a shining miraculous star to show me the path, I could feel confident that I was always doing the right thing, pursuing the right course of action.

But if you read the story carefully, at some point, the star disappeared. What did the wise men do then? If they were like me, they wandered about confused and uncertain. But like I said, they were wise men so, we could be pretty sure they did something different. They thought. They reasonably decided that the most likely place for a king to be born was in the closest palace, so they headed to the palace of King Herod. Sure enough, they got enough information to be back on the right track, and the star re-appeared.

The truth is, that most of the time, I actually do have a Star…not a visual light in the sky, but a written light in the darkness. It says “Love your enemies,” “Give a cup of cold water in my name,” “visit the widows and the orphans,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” and plenty other things, but that’s enough to focus on most of the time.

But what happens when I’m in a place and can’t see the path? Should I be writing this, or should I be writing a note to my mother? The star is a bit too unclear for me. Well, that’s when a wise man would stop, think, make a reasonable decision, and proceed.

That’s all for now, I’m going to write a short note to my mother.

POSTSCRIPT: I sent an e-mail note to my mother a few minutes after this was posted. My brother read it to her that night. She died about 28 hours later. I feel grateful that The Bright and Morning Star led me.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The bad news that makes the good news so good

The “good news” of God’s salvation is really only appreciated when we realize how hopeless we are without it. The good news of the gospel is truly good because it is our only hope. Without the power and merciful justice of God we are all hopelessly doomed. The next section in Romans (1:18 – 32) is important because the bad news is the context that makes the gospel such spectacularly good news.

Ignorance of God’s law, Paul tells us, is not a valid excuse. It is a chosen blindness to some truths evident in what can be seen, namely God’s power and divinity. (It’s arguable that the essence of divinity here is righteousness, in which case there is a wonderful parallel here that God’s power and righteousness form the truths that are evident in creation and essence of the gospel [verse 16,17].)

This chosen ignorance has consequences in our behaviors.
It would be a mistake to read these verses as a simple list of sins.

It is unfortunate that this passage is sometimes used to present homosexuality as chief among sins. So, why did Paul seem to put such emphasis on homosexuality? Paul wrote this epistle to Rome sometime between 2 and 8 years after Nero became Caesar. Nero was by no means the first Caesar to engage in homosexual behavior, but he was the first Caesar to marry a gay lover. In fact, it’s possible to read this passage and find virtually every evil used to describe Nero by his contemporaries. He came to power by deceit and murder of his step-father. He kept power by the same means. His political rivals, including his mother, were murdered by his order. He was the first Caesar to aggressively persecute the Christians and yet he was “Divine” in the state religion. Verse 32 concludes the list with the observation that the ungodly not only do these awful things “but also approve of those who practice them.” Paul could hardly have said more plainly that the approval Rome gave to Nero was proof of a depraved state.

While I suspect that Paul was thinking of Nero, I believe that the Holy Spirit was moving to accomplish a deeper and more lasting objective. The passage lists the results of willful ignorance when God “gives them up.”

The Holy Spirit knowingly makes it impossible for anyone to read this passage and indulge in a self-righteous judgment against others whose sins are more “grievous” than our own. Like everyone I am tempted by certain sins, but not by others. Homosexual activity is extremely tempting to some, but not most. That reality makes it easy for the self-righteous to take prideful comfort in the condemnation of others.

Homosexual sin is one that far too many view with self-righteous contempt. It is wrong, but it’s no worse than gluttony. It’s no worse than telling a “little white lie.” It’s no worse than disobeying a parent. Those who struggle with homosexual urges should not be placed in a category different from any other sinner. To tell them they must stop their sexual behaviors and cease their desires in order to be in good standing is consistent only if you require the glutton to become thin and cease craving sweets to be in good standing. God’s love and His salvation are not based on the actions of the sinner, that’s the Gospel! God’s love and His salvation are based on God’s power and generous justice to treat faith as faith regardless of who has it, and regardless of what sin that person finds tempting.

Lest any of us feel any superiority to those of “greater sins,” the inspired apostle moves the target smoothly between wickedness, murder, deceit, arrogant God haters (all of which are easy for the self-righteous to deny) and the “lesser sins” of envy, gossip, and disobedience to parents.

The clear conclusion of any open-minded reading of the passage is that “I am no better than those I willingly condemn.” This intent of the Holy Spirit is confirmed in the first phrase of the next paragraph.

Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. (Romans 2:1)

The good news that God’s salvation is applied on the basis of faith alone is good news indeed.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Paul’s Theology 101, part 2

The entire good news from God is encapsulated in the short phrases of Romans 1:16 & 17. This is the thesis statement for the doctrinal treatise that follows. It is a premise well memorized.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (KJV)

I memorized these verses as a child, but I don’t think I really understood them until I started trying to paraphrase them, keeping in mind that many have called them the thesis statement for the book.

Here’s my current paraphrase.

I have complete confidence to preach and live in the good news of Christ because it’s anchored in the unchanging attributes of God. First, God has the power to rescue everyone. Second, God does rescue anyone who puts faith in Him regardless of their background. The faith of a Jew, the faith of a gentile, either way, it’s faith that God honors. As it says in Habakkuk 3:4, “the ones that live rightly with God have been rescued because of their faith."

The King James phrase “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” does not imply a primacy of the Jews, it simply means “The Jews learned it first, but it’s now available to everyone.” The phrase “revealed from faith to faith” is reinforcing the thought that God is generous and equitable in His offer to rescue everyone. Faith is treated like faith no matter who has it. God not only has the power to rescue all, but also the fairness to rescue all based on faith, rather than heritage.

God has the power to save. (God is great.)

God will save all those who believe, regardless of their history. (God is good.)

Blessed be the name of the Lord!