My last post addressed the way that creeds or statements of faith can sometimes limit our ability to approach Scripture openly and hear God’s voice clearly. In that post I also observed that creeds can serve to give the impression that “faith” is restricted to the content of our beliefs. If that is the case, then the Protestant motto of “faith alone” suggests that as long as I believe correct doctrine, I am saved. This is flawed thinking for at least two reasons.
The first is that such a system is just a different way of embracing salvation by works. It trades deeds for thoughts and so the “work” becomes intellectual, but the result is the same: I am rewarded for thinking correctly about God. Biblical faith is an active trust in the person and work of Jesus, which of course involves agreeing with certain truths, but is not limited to an intellectual exercise and does not demand the sort of precision that some theological traditions seem to suggest is necessary to remain true to “the gospel”.
The second flaw in limiting the basis of salvation to right belief is that biblical faith, in addition to being an active trust, is tied to our works far more often than is often given credence in many Protestant circles. Of course there is the famous passage in James 2 in which the author makes the tension of faith and works explicit in saying that Abraham was justified by his works and not only by his “faith”. This has often been resolved by saying that a genuine trust in God results in works of righteousness that prove the faith is genuine but that it is still the faith that saves and not the works.
Over the past few years, I have been reading Scripture anew and trying to consciously set aside my theological convictions as lenses to understand it and letting it stand on its own. Three passages in particular have informed my journey in this area and led me to reevaluate the nature of the relationship between faith and works. The passages are Galatians 2:11-14 (in tandem with Acts 15), Matthew 25:31-46, and Hebrews 6:9-12 (in tandem with 10:19-39).
In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul is recounting an episode in his ministry in which he rebuked Peter publicly because his “conduct was not in step with the gospel”. The conduct in question is that Peter was refusing to eat with Gentiles but only with Jews. Table fellowship was a core practice of the early church and demonstrated unity, welcome and acceptance. Paul found that Peter’s conduct (or “works”) were sufficiently out of step with the gospel that it required a public rebuke. It is the sort of response the church has historically taken when a leader has abandoned orthodoxy (“right belief”) and labeled them a heretic. Heresy is the charge that someone’s belief is sufficiently incorrect to sever them from Christ. Here, however, Paul makes it clear that heresy is also a category that applies to orthopraxy (“right practice”). Indeed, this is the only instance of an apostle being publicly rebuked in Scripture and is consistent with the theme of the first church council in Acts 15 in which a doctrinal question is viewed through the lens of a particular practice (circumcision). Thus it is Peter’s works that render him in danger of denying the gospel.
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus has been engaging in an extended teaching on the end of the age when His kingdom will fully come. The purpose is to inform and inspire the disciples to remain faithful while they await his return. This section comes at the conclusion of this teaching and surveys the scene at the final judgment when it will be determined who will enter Jesus’ kingdom and who will be excluded. The standard that is used has nothing to do with one’s belief. Instead, the measure has to do with what people have done for the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners. Those who have exhibited love, provision and welcome are permitted to enter heaven’s joys, while those who have not are cast into the eternal fire. The reason is that Jesus identifies with those groups so that one’s response to them is equivalent to one’s response to Christ. This is consistent with Peter’s error in Galatians where his heresy had to do with how he treated those (Gentiles) whom Jesus loves.
Finally, Hebrews 6:9-12 is the conclusion of a warning (5:11-6:8) to believers about falling away from Jesus. In it, the authors state that although their warning has been harsh, they are confident of their salvation. The reason is that “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.” Here we see the connection between faith and works. The audience’s works, consisting of service to the saints (consistent with the other two passages), are motivated by love for God’s name. In a subsequent warning in 10:19-39 the authors equate “holding fast the confession of our hope” with stirring “up one another to love and good works”. They then point (again) to the audience’s experience of sacrificial service of the saints in hardship and equate this to having faith and preserving their souls. This goes beyond saying that true faith produces works. It defines true faith as a love for God that expresses itself in an active trust and an active love for what he loves, namely his people.
These three passages are representative of the totality of the New Testament in which there is less of a tension between “faith and works” than there is in many of our traditions informed by the theological conflicts among European believers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The consistent view is that those who are saved have been made a part of God’s family, trusting in his grace to reconcile them to himself and the other members of his household, exchanging hatred for love supplied by his grace. Thus our trust and obedience cannot be separated and neither is viewed as earning us merit before God since both are the result of the gracious provision of his Spirit.
All of this serves to soberly challenge the way I often approach grace as being let off the hook for needing to be scrupulous in my practice and choices as a follower of Jesus. It calls me to question who (or what) I truly love and trust most and how my life gives expression to that. It prompts me to reflect deeply on what I know about God and whether I’ve allowed it to penetrate my heart such that the worthiness of his name drives me to live a life of love for his people. And all the while, recognizing that guilt and shame never produce growth and so I ask Him to continue to shape and change my heart as a work of grace and seek to cooperate with him in that work. May it be so in all of us!
We live in a time that resists formulas of any kind. This poses a challenge for those of us who have been nurtured in our faith by creedal communities. By that I mean that the standard for admitting someone into fellowship is primarily based on agreement with a set of theological statements. Most churches have a statement of faith (ours certainly does) that attempt to define the essential, non-negotiable points of agreement that unite their particular congregation.
I love creeds. In seminary I was tasked on a few occasions to craft statements of faith and found the exercise thrilling and engaging. The process of looking through all that Scripture has to say on various topics and themes is one that has nourished my soul over the years. My background of being raised in the Evangelical Free Church gave me an early respect for challenging any statement of faith with the question “Where stands it written?” It presented Scripture, rather than the creed, as the final authority on matters of faith. In this post (which is long overdue) I will explore one of the dangers of creeds, which is that in practice they often usurp that proper place of Scripture in a way that cuts us off from the life-giving ministry of the Word. In a future post (and I promise it will not take four months this time) I will explore the reality that even when this danger is avoided, creeds are at best one half of the standard we should use in defining our fellowships. But for now…
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of should and of spirit, of joints and of marrow and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 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” - Hebrews 4:12-13
I recently preached on Hebrews 3:1-4:13 (listen here) and gave the context of this well-known verse as being the necessary means to enter God’s saving rest. The image is one of yielding ourselves to the sword in the hand of a gladiatorial opponent. The word is not in our hands, but in His, and there are things we must allow him to cut out, remove, and put to death by it. If we retain control of the sword, this cannot be done. I have become aware that creeds are one way that we attempt to retain control of the sword.
Our creeds are always the product of bringing our questions about God, life, culture and ourselves to the text of Scripture and expressing the answers we find therein. Creeds therefore must necessarily change over time because the questions we are asking change. Note that I am not suggesting that truth changes over time. Truth is fixed and eternal. Our expression of truth must constantly adjust as our understanding develops, grows and matures based on the questions we ask. We see this dynamic at work throughout Scripture itself as well as the history of the church as faithful saints bring their questions to God and receive fresh understandings of his nature. For instance:
Each of these questions opened a dialogue and a process that was rarely straightforward and was frequently fraught with tension. Creeds give expression to what is reached at the end of such a process but do not give room for a real dialogue to take place. They often serve to shut down discussion rather than to foster inquiry. It is telling that in very few instances when Jesus was asked questions did he answer them directly. Frequently he responded by asking a question himself! Indeed, even his teaching in parables is designed to provoke questions rather than to answer them.
It is worth thinking about how we approach Scripture, especially when we listen to those who teach us. We should consider: “Am I evaluating what is being taught based on its faithfulness to the text or based on its faithfulness to a particular statement of faith?” I find that often we are engaged in the latter activity. Instead of repeatedly submitting our creeds to the scrutiny of Scripture, we close ourselves off to what Scripture might be saying because of an acceptance of previously drafted statements.
Creeds also serve to limit our spiritual life by reducing faithfulness to an agreement on the particular points of doctrine our community has thought to be most important. I reflected recently on this idea and had to confess that our eternal destiny is not based on precisely correct theology any more than it is based on perfectly pure works. Right thinking is no more meritorious to secure salvation than right doing. What saves us is fidelity to the person and work of Jesus Christ the Nazarene and nothing else. All good theology is but a reflection on the wonder of the Son of God and the redemption He provides. I realized that I will never understand Him and His salvation perfectly and at any given moment I am guilty of any number of heretical opinions about Him. Yet He loves me and I love Him, of that I am certain. And so I strive every day to grow in my knowledge of Him and my appreciation of His work through Scripture and prayer, bringing my questions and trusting Him to guide me into truth. Creeds become useful tools in that process but hopefully never usurp the place of Jesus, His Spirit and His Word as my source of Truth.
I have been writing posts about the spiritual disciplines in a fairly undisciplined way over the past couple of months. The irony is not lost on me, believe me.
One of my deep convictions that I know we as God's people need to grasp hold of is that God still speaks and He is still at work. Often in our traditions we minimize one or both of these elementary truths and the symptoms of such views are legion. They also undermine true and vibrant discipleship to Jesus. In a future post I am going to talk about the disciplines of study and theology (which are not just for pastors by the way, and much harm has come from thinking they are) as necessary to continue to hear God's voice today. In this post, however, I want to offer a brief reflection on the purpose of prayer as it relates to both of those truths based in part on a recent experience I had.
First of all, prayer is deeply related to the truth that God is at work in the world. For the past year or more I have been engaged in the broad effort known as CityFest here in Grand Rapids under the auspices of the Palau Association. It has raised the bar for me of the sorts of dreams I have for what God can do and wants to do through His body in this region. Consequently it has impacted my prayer life a great deal. A central focus of the effort has been to raise up thousands of people to pray for the region and for the church. The invitation for the Palaus to come was in fact birthed out of a growing movement of churches uniting for prayer in the region. The bottom line is that we are convinced that God wants to bring revival in our time and so it drives us to prayer to implore him to do it!
Secondly, prayer is deeply rooted in the truth that God still speaks in the world. As I have been engaged in this regional work of revival, it has become common for me to see God clearly directing my steps in ways I could not otherwise have imagined. A potent example of this came in a recent planning meeting. We were discussing an idea related to the work which we had great passion and vision for, but we were frankly stumped as far as how to get it off the ground. We had set up this meeting and it was one of those times where you know everyone is hoping somebody else came with the silver bullet idea, because you certainly don't have it. As it became apparent that none of us had an answer, someone suggested we pray about it. Of course no one is going to say, in the moment, that that is a bad idea and yet I will confess thinking "I'm not sure this will really help, except maybe to buy us a few minutes." Shameful I know, but pastors are just as prone to faithlessness as anyone else.
I will (I hope) never forget what happened next. We began by confessing to God that we didn't have the wisdom, knowledge and expertise to do what we felt He wanted us to. We prayed against initializing our own plans and asked that He would help us think His thoughts after Him. As each of us prayed, I began to grasp a vision of what it was God wanted to do in mobilizing people for the task we had in mind. Our prayers took on a conversational tone as we engaged in an active dialogue with the Lord together. Afterwards, we looked at each other and within minutes felt we had a plan for moving forward that none of us would have conceived of when we got there.
In other words, we experienced the truth of James 1:5, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." James goes on to admonish that our asking be in full faith without doubting. It occurred to me that so many times I don't really expect God to answer prayers for specific guidance and wisdom, in clear violation of what He promises to do! The faith of my co-laborers that day encouraged me to confidently ask God for wisdom and he supplied it to us.
Imagine what God is wanting to tell us about what He is wanting to do through us in His world if only we would listen. I'm starting to ask more and more for this kind of guidance. Will you?
In a recent sermon I discussed how the President's statement that MS-13 gang members "are not people, they are animals" posed a problem for followers of Jesus who seek to live in line with His gospel. I thought this important since I have seen several people who claim the name of Christ defending the president's remarks. Based on a couple of subsequent interactions, I am convinced this is a conversation that needs to be broadened in order to move it out of being purely a political shouting match and so I wish to provide some further context and clarification of my comments.
1) The Significance of Words
At the outset, the President's defenders seemed to suggest that this was an off-handed remark, and thus did not merit scrutiny. Additionally, as has been the case so often with this president, it was suggested that his actions and not his words are what matter. Two passages come to mind that disallow us from taking such a casual stance. The first is Jesus' statement that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks....on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:34-37 ESV) The second is from Jesus' little brother James who expands on this idea in ways very relevant to the president's words: "(The tongue) is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so." (James 3:8-10) Here James identifies the impossibility of the same heart pouring out blessing and cursing sincerely and sites the problem of cursing people as being an offense against the image of God in them. This idea bears some further exploration.
2) Bearers of the Image
In referring to MS-13 members as "animals" the president entered a dangerous realm. It is clear he meant what he said since the white house posted a detailed defense of the remarks (which you can see here). He doubled down again on Tuesday night at his rally in Nashville when he asked the crowd "What did I call them?" and they shouted back "Animals!" The defense offered is that their heinous behavior renders such a label appropriate. Indeed, one professing believer I know cited the following statement from Dennis Prager in a column published by Investors Business Daily (full article here):
"Calling the cruelest among us names such as "animal" or any other "dehumanizing" epithet actually protects humans. The word "beastly" exists for a reason and is frequently applied to human beings. By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human."
This sentiment strikes against a foundational truth of Scripture: human beings are made in the image of God and as such have a dignity that cannot be lost, ever. Even Jude, in condemning false teachers, says only that their behavior resembles that of unwitting animals who are destroyed by following their instincts (Jude 10). As harsh as that statement is, he is not removing the false teachers from the human race. Scripture no where suggests that the image of God in humanity can be lost or forsaken and thinking it can opens us up to potentially grotesque violations. While it feels satisfying to designate MS-13 as animals, being guilty of the heinous crimes they commit, such satisfaction hides either a self-righteousness in thinking we are unlike them or a defense against our awareness that we are.
3) The Bearer of the Cross
It is this thought that makes the president's remarks most repugnant to a follower of Christ. Christ came into a world populated by nothing but people guilty of the most heinous crime: seeking to overthrow the eternal, living God from ruling his creation and subjecting it to a holocaust of death and carnage. You are guilty of that. I am guilty of that. Humanity as a whole stands condemned and worthy of eternal suffering because of our flagrant rebellion against the beauty, kindness, goodness and truth of God's loving nature. We replaced it with hate and selfishness and greed and lust and malice and strife. The doctrine of depravity should caution us in how quickly we condemn others in their essence and write them off, because we find ourselves in those same crosshairs.
That is why we need the Cross. If any people deserved the appellation of "animals" the society that invented, perfected and widely practiced the public execution form known as crucifixion certainly did. Jesus subjected himself to this barbarism precisely in order to save the ones guilty of it. From the cross he did not cry out "You animals!" He cried out "Forgive them!" He did not write them out of the human race in order to elevate the human race. In inexplicable compassion, he still saw His Father's image indelibly printed on them and thus saw them worthy of redeeming. So in a singular act, he endured the scorn of being regarded as an animal, a "lamb lead to slaughter" (Is. 53:7), and his form "marred beyond human semblance" (Is. 52:14). In doing so he made possible the redemption of those who had scorned God's image so that we might be made new into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:1-2) and become a new humanity in him (1 Cor. 15, Eph. 4, Col. 2).
The gospel can only be good news for those who have the image and so to "read them out of the human race" is to put them beyond the gospel's reach. But if they are out of the reach of God's grace, I'm afraid we all are. Lord have mercy!
Below is a summary of the message I preached on May 13 from 1 Samuel 11:12-12:25 that did not get recorded. I surveyed five principles of biblical leadership from the passage and addressed them to the recent events concerning Paige Patterson's comments on domestic abuse that recently came to light and the response of the SBC.
1.) Godly leaders are secure in their identity and position in Christ and thus do not seek retribution against their critics (1 Samuel 11:12-15).
It is true that Saul does not get much right in his reign as Israel's king, and his greatest strength, humility, becomes a weakness of hesitancy. In this instance, however, when there is a cry to execute those who had questioned his rule, he cites God's deliverance as all the vindication he needed and that to execute them to prove a point would be gratuitous. Contrast this with the firing of a Ph.D. student from SWTS for criticizing Dr. Patterson's defense of his remarks. As followers of Christ, defensiveness is a toxic trait that undercuts our faith and our witness
2.) Godly leaders are transparent and invite accountability (1 Samuel 12:1-5).
Samuel goes a step further than Saul and actually invites charges of wrongdoing against him. This is not for the purpose of defending himself against such charges, but in order to make right any potential wrongs he committed against the people he had led. In the discussions in the SBC the past coupe of weeks, it is clear that in many circles the major problem is not what Dr. Patterson said, but that people are criticizing him for it. The highest good is the reputation of the leader, not how his words and actions might harm those he leads. Samuel models the sort of transparency and accountability that is unconcerned with how it might make them look to the public. It is significant that after decades of public service, no one brought any charges against Samuel. Where there is a lack of transparency, it is often because there is something that needs to be hidden.
3.) Godly leaders plead God's righteous case when confronting sin (1 Samuel 12:6-12).
Having re-established his leadership, Samuel proceeds to lay out his plea to the people of Israel. While their faithlessness and idolatry are certainly a concern to him, the way the text portrays this is that Samuel catalogs God's righteousness, not their wickedness. Samuel does not set himself up as an adversary of the people but as an advocate for God and His goodness. It is a plea for the people to be enthralled with God's faithful lovingkindness and to turn from the empty gods they have been serving. This has been one of the encouraging things in recent weeks for me to see. There are numerous voices in the SBC that are not taking the easy path of simply condemning Dr. Patterson for his remarks, but pleading with their brothers and sisters on behalf of God's goodness and for the sake of His reputation. Rather than posturing as vicious critics, these voices are winsome witnesses that are drawing the church back to righteousness.
4.) Godly leaders are followers first (1 Samuel 12:13-18).
This principle underlies all the rest. Samuel makes it clear that the people and their king must al be following God. He further seems to hold both king and people accountable for the other to follow. Then most dramatically, he demonstrates that he speaks not on his own but as a follower of God by asking God to speak to all of them in a mighty way. This shows that Samuel too, is under authority. Part if the challenge not only in the SBC but in the broader church as well, is that we still have an unhealthy view of leadership as being about positional authority. That tends to discourage the characteristics outlined in the first three points and creates a culture where leader are not followers first, and followers are tempted to simply follow a human authority rather than following Christ and being able to lead others themselves. The biblical vision is that all of God's people would be leaders in some capacity through relational influence grounded in their following of Jesus. When we lose sight of that, we see authorities abusing their positions to the hurt of those they lead.
5.) Godly leaders compassionately seek the good of those they lead (1 Samuel 12:19-25).
Samuel closes his address by indicating that although the people have rejected God as king by choosing a king for themselves, he will not cease to serve them in prayer and instruction. This is remarkable since they have also implicitly rejected Samuel as a leader and he could have simply washed his hands of them. Instead, far from being a farewell address (as it has often been called), Samuel's words indicate a fortitude to continue to love this stubborn people in the best way, by praying for them and showing them the good and right way. When Dr. Patterson's comments came to light he showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity when he indicated that he did not need to apologize because he had done nothing wrong. Having told a woman in an abusive marriage to stay in it, when she came to church later with two black eyes she asked him if he were happy. He replied that he was since her husband had come to church with her that week. He told this story as an illustration of biblical counsel regarding marriage. I can only imagine the tremendous damage his words did to that woman and to many who heard him share the story as a positive example. Thus, when he wrote an apology several days after insisting he had nothing to apologize for, he did not apologize to that woman and certainly did not seek to make right what he had done. This kind of callousness towards the under his leadership is the most egregious shortcoming he has displayed. More troubling is that many leaders who were quick to applaud his "apology" had been silent when others were insisting there was something to apologize for. This kind of self-protection of leaders is exactly the reverse of what Samuel models and the rest of Scripture holds up as "servant leadership". My prayer for the SBC and all other churches, including my own, is that we will witness a renewal of commitment to godly, biblical leadership so that as we follow our Lord and Savior we might lead others towards Him.
On April 26th, GRTS is hosting a conference called "Justice and Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church". It will examine the experience of African-Americans in the church and society, particularly in West Michigan. You can read more about it and register at www.cornerstone.edu/grand-rapids-theological-seminary/events/talking-points/2018-19-spring-talking-points-series/spring-2018-talking-points-conference/
As one aspect of CityFest's One West Michigan efforts, I have been part of planning this event and will be participating on a panel discussion during the day. I was also asked to write a blog post as part of a series leading up to the conference. The blog tells a part of my story of discovery and why this issue has become a prominent one for me in ministry. You can find it at www.cornerstone.edu/blogs/talking-points/post/my-eyes-have-been-opened.
In a striking coincidence yesterday morning, I heard a dietician on the radio talking about "eating the rainbow" while Calvin was reading an article in his 3rd grade class about the very same idea. The notion that we should be eating a balanced, colorful and heavily plant-based diet sparked a good conversation at the dinner table as we enjoyed a colorful, balanced and entirely plant-based meal of cauliflower and chickpea curry over basmati rice. We talked about God's provision and creativity of a wide variety of beautiful and flavorful foods designed to meet the nutritional needs we have. We talked about how in accordance with the creation blessing, humans can use those foods to create combinations that bring out further beauties and complexities of flavor. We also talked about how sin has marred God's good design and how we can corrupt the natural foods God has created and harm our bodies as a consequence. All of this made me think about the parallel realities of our spiritual nourishment and health.
Over the past few weeks I have been writing about the staples of a healthy spiritual life: the spiritual disciplines. So far I have focused on those disciplines related to God's word, which the biblical authors refer to as both "pure milk" as well as "meat" or "solid food". It occurred to me that in my writing I had gravitated towards the disciplines that come most naturally to me, those that my spiritual taste buds most naturally crave. Similar to my own dietary habits, if left to myself, my plate would be heavily weighted with meats and cheeses and not represent the rainbow that is for my best. My practice of the disciplines is no different. I run readily towards the meat and milk of the word, but have to remind myself that the fruit of the Spirit is generated in a two-way relationship as I walk in the Spirit. And this means prayer.
As I think about this idea of a balanced diet as it relates to spiritual disciplines, it occurs to me that even in my prayer life there is the need for balance. Whether we think of an ACTS model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) or the James model of praise and prayer, or the Psalms' model of Lament and Praise, Scripture presents a variety of ways to pray that are all essential parts of a spiritual diet. For me the Lord's Prayer has been the model I have learned from the most and been challenged by most greatly.
Matthew 6 gives us a model that Jesus gave his disciples to use in prayer. The words themselves are not the model, but rather the types of things included in the prayer. If we think of it as a skeleton we must put flesh on, it prevents it from being the very thing Jesus condemned in the scribes and Pharisees as vain repetition. The requests are: 1) name hallowed, 2) kingdom come, 3) will be done, 4) daily bread, 5) forgiveness, 6) lead not into temptation. Three of these are God-ward requests and three are human focused. I find it much easier to put flesh on the latter three than the first three. That is, I can easily come up with specific items to include under the categories of daily bread, forgiveness and deliverance from the evil one's tests and temptations. It is harder to articulate requests under the first three headings. Yet Jesus, in speaking a short while later about the priorities of disciples, said that rather than worrying about our food and clothes (request 4) we should seek first his kingdom (request 2) and righteousness (request 3) and all these things would be added to us. So we are missing essential components of our diet if we neglect to flesh out these first three requests.
This is why the Psalms are so necessary to us. The collection serves as a prayer manual for God's people, giving us language to pray well. It draws attention to the reality of God's kingdom, and of his anointed king who rules on David's throne (for more on that, listen to the sermon from April 8th). It teaches us what it means to praise God for his rule, to ask for his rule to be made more full, and to lament when we see it absent. As we pray in a accordance with the Psalms, a feedback loop is created. As we pray for His name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come and his will to be done, we start to see our world, nation, city and neighborhood differently. We start to see the lack of God's shalom in them. As a result, we pray more fervently and have more "flesh" to put on the skeleton. Then our eyes are opened further to the realities of God's kingdom and our need to be brought into conformity with it and so we are driven more to prayer. You get the idea.
This is what Tim Keller refers to as "Frontline Prayer" as distinguished from "maintenance prayer". Maintenance prayer is the bottom three requests that most of us equate with prayer. Frontline prayer brings us into God's strategy room and puts us at the tip of the spear of His kingdom. Both are necessary, but there is a reason the Frontline requests come first. In my life, I have never sustained good maintenance prayer without engaging in frontline prayer. Further, with frontline prayer as a priority, it changes how I pray my maintenance prayers. All of a sudden my daily bread and struggles and failures with sin are not merely individual matters of my fate and relationship with God, but have implications for God's reputation and plan in the world.
So I invite you to look at your spiritual plate and evaluate how colorful it is. What our moms told us all growing up is also what our Father would say: "Make sure you eat your veggies." It was good advice then regarding our earthly food and remains good advice now for our spiritual food.
In the best of the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade, Sean Connery, playing Dr. Henry Jones Sr. exasperatedly tells his son, when asked why he can't remember the three tests they will have to pass to reach the Holy Grail that "I wrote them down in my diary so I wouldn't have to remember!" The diary is in the hands of the Nazis (I hate these guys!) and thus poses a problem for these latter-day knights of the Round Table in their quest.
It also serves as a statement of how many of us approach our disciplines related to Scripture. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the written Word here in Western society. We have some 900 printed English translations available to us. Many of us have upwards of a dozen printed Bibles in our homes representing at least a half dozen of these translations. We have Bible apps on our phone and I have a software platform that gives me access to both those translations as well as to the original Hebrew and Greek versions. And this is without considering the legion of commentaries, bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases and linguistic and background resources available to us.
With all of this supply, you would expect that we would be the most biblically literate people in history. In a previous post, though, I drew attention to the fact that for many of us, we haven't even read all of the book we have so many copies and versions of and so many resources to help us understand it. In a future post, I will address the discipline of studying Scripture and using these tremendous resources. Here, though, I want to address how these resources have put us in the position of Dr. Jones where we have so much written down, we feel we don't have to remember.
The plethora of written resources we have for Scripture can discourage the discipline of committing it to memory because we feel it's always there when we need it. This assumes the discipline of memory is intended primarily to allow us not to depend on the written word to have Scripture available to us. This is certainly a benefit of Scripture memorization but in my experience it is not the primary or most significant benefit.
My experience of voluntarily committing Scripture to memory began towards the end of college when I had come across 2 Peter 1 in my study and devotional reading. The immense promise of verse 3 "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness" coupled with the astounding statement that we have "become partakers of the divine nature" deeply resonated with my should at that time of my life. I had struggled with my thought life and this passage offered a promise and expectation of victory in those struggles. I was then prompted to memorize the chapter and proceeded to do so. I found that as I worked to commit the passage to memory, its truths reverberated in my mind throughout the day. When I lay awake at night, reciting the passage calmed my spirit and kept at bay thoughts that otherwise would have tormented me. More than simply being available to me in the same way the written text was, the act of memorizing the passage had brought about the word being "written on my heart", informing how I thought, felt and viewed my world.
I have found that whenever I set to memorize a verse or (as I am more fond of doing) a longer portion of Scripture, this dynamic is set in motion. Memorizing involves numerous recitations that more than simply being committed to memory (the way a phone number or address is) it becomes part of our thought patterns. In ideal moments it is that passage that comes to mind. When I read other Scriptures or hear preaching, I see connections to the text I am memorizing. In memorizing, my study of the text is enriched as I am forced to look in detail at every word. I begin to see aspects of the passage that even studying would not necessarily have uncovered.
As with the other disciplines, it is easy to approach memorization as a box to check and an accomplishment to either take pride in or to feel guilt over. I would encourage you to link your memorization to your reading or studying. Don't just pick verses at random, memorize something that God has used to speak to you recently. As daunting as memorizing a longer passage might seem, it can be easier to memorize a 10 verse passage than 10 individual verses because you all have context and other triggers that will call to mind what comes next. The bottom line though is that we remember what we are passionate about and what we are passionate about, we remember. Memorization is its own positive feedback loop. Start with what you love and you will find a deeper love of the text that motivates further memorization. May His word be written on our hearts and minds to conform us to the image of Christ!
It's Good Friday. Around the world today, people claiming the name of Christ will gather to commemorate His death nearly 2000 years ago. Whatever our denominational differences or various traditions, we today proclaim in faith that somehow His death is good news for us. It is one of the Christian faith's distinctive features, this doctrine of the vicarious atonement of Jesus of Nazareth. No other faith system has deity bridging the gap between infinity and humanity through suffering and death. At the cross justice and mercy meet as sin is dealt with as truly abhorrent and mercy makes a way for grace to restore the sinner to life when we deserved death.
In Jesus' own teaching he said repeatedly that there was a connection between receiving forgiveness from God and extending it to others. In one such instance he rebuked Simon (not Peter) for his attitude toward the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet, saying "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven-for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:47) Those who are the beneficiaries of the lavish provisions of Christ's death cannot help but deal with the sins of other in the same way, by absorbing them themselves.
With this understanding of forgiveness and the meaning of Christ's death, it would be well of us on this day to reflect on Western evangelicalism's emphasis on individual responsibility where sin and salvation are concerned. There is a tension in Scripture that must be observed between individual responsibility and corporate solidarity and identity. We see both taught clearly whether it is in the OT prophet Ezekiel saying "the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4) alongside the first of the ten commandments in which God says he visits "the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me" (Ex. 20:5), or in the NT Ananias and Sapphira being held to account individually for their sin while the church in Corinth suffered corporately in sickness because of the congregation's sins (1 Cor. 11:30).
We have tended to emphasize individual responsibility and minimize corporate realities that are taught by Scripture. This becomes apparent when we try to distance ourselves from sins of the past by saying that we are not responsible for what went on before us. On one level this is true, but the Psalms give us examples of God's people collectively confessing the sins of their ancestors and Nehemiah acted on that example in leading the people of his day in repentance and confession of the sins of their fathers going back 1000 years (Neh. 9). Indeed, the very need and possibility of the cross is rooted in the idea that one individual can stand in for the actions and fates of others. We stand condemned in Adam, being counted as guilty participants in his sin. Because of the cross we stand justified in Christ, being counted as righteous participants in his death and resurrection. So if anyone has a basis to claim appropriate and meaningful responsibility for historical sins, it is believers. We have a prophetic opportunity furnished by the gospel to lead in confession and repentance of our nation's sins and in so doing, "bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."
On this Good Friday I am grateful that "by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." (Rom. 5:19)
That clip is from one of my favorite movies, the 70s screwball comedy "What's Up Doc?" It takes place in the courtroom scene at the end of the film where Ryan O'Neil's hapless character is trying to explain the unbelievable (and hilarious) series of events that have transpired over the previous 90 minutes. The judge's wish to "skip over this part" became a catch phrase in our household growing up whenever we encountered something unpleasant or confounding.
As I continue this series of posts about the spiritual disciplines, this clip reminds me of our approach to Scripture. The Bible, in its two Testaments, 66 books and no fewer than 2 dozen different types (genres) of literature, can be a bewildering read. Many of us, influenced in large part by the preaching we have received, gravitate towards the New Testament and Psalms. Fully 2/3 of our Bibles are darkened to our minds as we rarely (if ever) look at them.
I understand why this is the case. The laws of Moses, especially Leviticus, can be horribly perplexing when they aren't downright boring. They strike us as antiquated and in some cases unjust. The prophets use imagery that is alien to us, speak of nations and kingdoms that no longer exist, and their oracles often seem like unsolvable riddles. The wisdom literature is oftentimes little better and while we know the story of Job, his dialogue with his friends can seem repetitive and inaccessible to us. Even the historical books, which contain narratives that should be easier to grasp, can be challenging with the complicated stories of political intrigue that often seem far removed from having very much to do with God and His plan, to say nothing of the genealogies of Genes and Chronicles and the land distribution registry that takes up 10 chapters of Joshua. All of this leads us to have Bibles that are well-marked where Paul or John is the author, but that have huge sections where the pages have never seen daylight.
When it comes to the discipline of the Word, there are numerous ways to interact with it. I broadly think in terms of contemplative disciplines and cognitive disciplines. Cognitive disciplines seek to fill our minds with the truths of Scripture to inform our thinking. Among these disciplines are reading, study, memorization, preaching and teaching (providing and hearing). Contemplative disciplines seek to fill our hearts with the truths of Scripture to inform our affections and wills. Among these are meditation, prayer and praise, life application, and devotional reading. Simple reading is one of the cognitive disciplines and is, of necessity, our starting point for any of the others.
Paul, in his farewell charge to the Ephesian elders reminded them that as an essential feature of his ministry he "did not shrink from declaring to [them] the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). In other words, God has made known His will, purpose and decrees throughout history and particularly preserved much of that revelation in what we refer to as "The Bible". To expose ourselves primarily to less than 1/3 of it is dangerous as we will certainly miss some things. We will also become prone to be selective in what we choose to hear God say to us. In other words, we reach a point where we want to "skip over this part".
I have taken this charge from Paul directly to heart in how I plan my preaching calendar each year. The Word is always about Jesus in some way, so each year we spend the time between Advent and Resurrection Sunday in a Gospel. The rest of the year we spend time in one Old Testament narrative (going through them chronologically), one non-narrative Old Testament series (Wisdom, Law, Prophet, etc.) and one New Testament epistle. This "balanced diet" is complemented by the fact that, other than the gospels, I will not preach a book twice until I've from every book at least once. This has produced the "12 year plan" for my preaching that we are now four years into. My goal is to remove some of the obstacles to our grasping of certain parts of Scripture and to equip us to be confident to hear God's voice from every part of His book.
So let me encourage you to evaluate your discipline of reading. It is not necessary to understand fully everything you read, that is for the discipline of study. It is not necessary that you immediately make sense of how to obey what you read, that is for the discipline of application. It is not necessary that you feel your heart warmed to God by what you read, that is for the discipline of devotion. It is an act of humility to yield ourselves to His word simply because it is His word. We should expect that it will often not be immediately appealing to us. He had to speak precisely because we are in error. So regard the difficulties as an invitation to look closer rather than looking away. If there are portions of Scripture you have never read, or only read once or twice, consider starting there. Consider a one year plan to read the whole Bible through (there are numerous options for this, and I have created my own if you are interested). Whatever you do, I encourage you to read the Book and don't be surprised if there is something significant in the parts you may have been tempted to skip over before.
May God add to the reading of His Word!
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.