Following the Leader

follow leaderYou household slaves:

Always submit yourselves to [your] masters in a very respectful way; not only to the good and kind, but also to those who are cruel. Because God is pleased if, because a man is mindful of Him, he endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.

Here’s why I say this – how is it to your credit if, when you slaves are committing sin and being roughly treated, you endure it? Instead, this is favor with God: if, when you’re doing right and suffering, you endure it – this is why you slaves were called to salvation!

You see, even Christ suffered for you slaves to leave behind an example for you, so you’d follow in His footsteps. He didn’t break God’s laws, and no lies were found in His mouth. Although He was viciously insulted, He didn’t insult [them] back. Even though He suffered, He never threatened to make them suffer in return. Instead, Christ kept entrusting [Himself] to the One who judges right.

He Himself carried our sins in His body to the cross, so that we believers would first be freed from the power of these sins, and then live for righteousness. By His wounding you were healed. What I mean is that, like sheep, you were wandering away, but now you’ve been returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

  • 1 Peter 2:18-25 (my translation)

The Tale of the Two Husbands

contrastOnce upon a time, in a far away land, there lived two doting husbands; Peter and George. From the outside, they were similar in every possible way. Peter was a successful businessman in the city, and George an executive at a large bank. Both were still younger men, around 40 years of age. Both had been married about 15 years. Both had two children. Each was blissfully unaware of the other’s existence.

They lived and worked in the same city, commuted to the same suburb, and, quite unwittingly, frequented the same café every Tuesday morning (at nine sharp). They moved in the same circles, in overlapping orbits, but their lives never touched . . . until yesterday.

On that day, after a particularly hard day at the office, Peter and George each found their way to a upscale florist in the city. It was an expensive place, with scandalous prices. Peter and George didn’t care – they were on a mission. Flowers and chocolates were the order of the day, and a quick trip home to the wife. Fences needed to be mended, sores patched up, an armistice signed.

You see, Peter and George had each treated their wives in a beastly fashion lately, and it was time to make amends. Battles had been fought, blood had been shed; unforgivable things had been spoken. Now, both men were prepared to surrender, and flowers and chocolates were the first tentative steps towards a cease-fire.

Home they went, fighting the same traffic, the same commuters, even (ironically) each other at one point. Finally, they arrived home, steeled themselves for marital combat, and plunged into the arena, ready to set things right so peace could reign in their households once more . . .

What happened, you ask?

Peter’s wife forgave him for his sins. George’s wife smacked him across the face, flung his dinner at him, stuffed the flowers in the toilet, and raced away to her mother’s house for the night, bringing the children with her.

Why the different reactions?

  1. Peter was genuinely sorry for his sins. He told his wife he was sorry, and outlined what, exactly, he was going to do to fix things – starting now. He didn’t just talk; he acted. He proved his sincerity by his actions, and together, they built their marriage stronger and forged ahead.
  2. George wasn’t sorry. The flowers and chocolates (hazelnut chocolate, of course) were a bribe, a holding action. He didn’t want to change at all. But, he figured he could buy some time and (why not?, he figured wickedly), some “affection” with this peace offering. It didn’t work, of course. His wife saw through him; he’d pulled this trick one too many times. George sat alone, in the dark, and thought pitiful thoughts while his wife sobbed at her mother’s.

Why the parable?

This parable illustrates two completely different approaches to a relationship with God; one Christian and the other pagan.

  1. Peter is the man who truly loves God. He admits when he does wrong (i.e. “confesses his sins”). When he says he’s sorry, he means it. Not only that, he proves his sincerity by concrete action (i.e. “repents”). He serves God because he loves Him, and when he makes mistakes (which are often), he is genuinely sorry.
  2. George is the man who doesn’t love God. He claims he’s sorry, but he lies. He doesn’t mean it, because nothing ever changes. He’s an empty suit, a man who lies out of habit. He’s never sorry. He’s just anxious to bribe his way out of trouble with false promises and false assurances.

Any wife can tell the difference between these two men. And, to extend the analogy of the parable, God can tell the difference between them, too.

The divide here is about motivation.

  1. Why do we serve God?
  2. What is our aim, our motivation, the self-conscious outcome we’re looking for?
  3. Do we seek cheap favor with God by bribery, or do we seek to serve Him because we love Him?

There is a chasm between these two positions.

What difference does it make?

It makes all the difference in the world. It certainly made a difference between Peter and George, didn’t it? Some confessing Protestants seek to blur these lines, as if they’re irrelevant. One of those people is Matthew Bates.

I’ve mentioned Bates several times in the past few weeks, because I’m reading his new book Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Bates has a PhD from a Roman Catholic institution, and teaches at a Roman Catholic school. In his book, he’s deliberately trying to build a bridge that Protestants and Catholics can cross together. He’s wrong.

Consider the Tale of the Two Husbands, and the motivation Peter and George had for their actions. They had the same outward actions, but completely different goals and objectives. Now, consider what Bates wrote:[1]

As nearly all Christians agree, perseverance in allegiance is required. If the union were to be severed by an unrepentant cessation of pistis (allegiance to Jesus as Messiah-king), then the continuing presence of the union-securing and fruit-producing Spirit would be decisively ruptured; the born-again person would experience spiritual death. That individual would no longer be justified, righteous, or innocent before God; eternal life would no longer be a present possession.

Christian traditions disagree about whether or not such a severance is possible. Reformed and some Lutheran Christians prefer to speak of the impossibility of rupture (“eternal security”).

Meanwhile, Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant traditions believe that it is possible for an individual to enter decisively into saving union but then to depart through an unrepentant turning away.

This debate should not, however, obscure the larger point about which Christian theologians are nearly unanimous: it is necessary for an individual to persevere in pistis throughout the course of her or his lifetime in order to attain final salvation.

Bates says something true, and something terribly wrong:

  1. Obedience is a necessary result of saving faith. You can’t have faith in Christ, then deliberately not obey Him. Actions prove where your heart is. It did for Peter, and it did for George, too.
  2. But, Bates claims that, if a person stops being loyal to Jesus and stops being obedient to His word, then that person “would no longer be justified, righteous, or innocent before God; eternal life would no longer be a present possession.”

Bates advocates a scheme where the person obeys Christ in order to retain eternal life. No matter which way you “nuance” this, you have works salvation. I don’t believe you can argue otherwise.

Typically, Reformed Protestants have argued that loving obedience is a natural result of union with Christ. That is, because our hearts, minds, and souls have been changed, because we have a new nature, and because we now honestly seek to please God, we’ll naturally desire to obey His word. So, in that sense, “good works” are not meritorious for salvation; they’re just the fruit of it.

Elsewhere in his book, Bates rejected this view. I don’t want to go into his reasons here. However, I do want to argue that it does matter which position you take on “good works.” I’ll quote him again:

This debate should not, however, obscure the larger point about which Christian theologians are nearly unanimous: it is necessary for an individual to persevere in pistis throughout the course of her or his lifetime in order to attain final salvation.

I disagree. This is about self-conscious motivation. When the Christian does what the Bible says, what is his reason for doing it? What outcome does he expect from his “good work?” What result does he expect to achieve by it?

The Protestant (i.e. the Christian) understands salvation is a present, permanent reality, and his “good works” are merely the inevitable and grateful response of the believer to God’s grace. He loves God, and wants to serve Him.

The Roman Catholic, however, sees God’s initial grace in salvation as a gift given to the Christian, which enables him to then merit for himself eternal life:[2]

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life . . .

The Protestant says a Christian simply will persevere in faith and good works until the end, because he loves God and wants to serve Him. The Roman Catholic (and, apparently, Matthew Bates) says the Christian must persevere in order to attain eternal life.

This is not a minor point of doctrine. It’s the difference between Jesus’ Gospel and “another Gospel” (cf. Gal 1). It’s a difference in self-conscious motivation. It’s the difference between Peter and George – and we all know how that turned out . . .

Notes

[1] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 190-191.  

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), Article 2010.

Against Idle Speculation

expertSometimes, bible commentators can wander off into idle speculation. Because they’re well-educated, we often give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they’ve studied the text longer than we have, so we shouldn’t dismiss what they have to say.

Yeah, but . . .

We should still use our common sense. I have a good example. In the Book of Revelation (a book which is not nearly so difficult as we make it out to be), we read this harsh message from Jesus to the Christian congregation in the city of Laodicea:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:15-16).

There are two common interpretations:

  1. Jesus is criticizing them for their apathy. They aren’t “on fire” for God (i.e. “hot”). They aren’t outright disobedient, either (i.e. “cold”). Their collective attitude is . . . meh. They’re apathetic, indifferent slugs who sit on their couches, too lazy to be obedient or blatantly disobedient. Or . . .
  2. The cold and hot water are both good, and Jesus is unhappy that they aren’t either of them, or both. Instead, they’re “neither cold nor hot,” and thus disgusting. This interpretation is based on the fact that the city of Laodicea drew its hot water supply from the nearby city of Hierapolis, and its cold water from Colossae.[1] It assumes John had this in mind, and was drawing a parallel.

There are several problems with the second interpretation, but I’ll focus on one – it is based entirely on assumptions which are not verifiable. It sounds like a learned, scholarly answer, doesn’t? It’s based on “background knowledge” of the contemporary situation. It sounds good. Is it? I don’t think so. This isn’t the way people write or talk in the real world.

The curious case of the Madagascar scholar

I’ll prove to you how backward this kind of interpretative method can be.[2] Pretend that, today, I write this sentence on a piece of paper:

“Fed up with my son’s filthy room, I have decided to cleanse it of all Legos, NERF bullets and cars until they learn the error of their ways! They may cry and complain, but I shall let the chips fall where they may!”

Six hundred years go by. The United States is long gone. The most powerful nation in the world is the country of Madagascar. A team of archaeologists, working in what used to be known as the Pacific Northwest, unearth the ruins of a beautiful home and, inside, they find that piece of paper, miraculously preserved.

Excited beyond words at this critical find, the archaeologists scan this precious find and send it electronically back home, to the most learned and scholarly English-language expert in the world. You see, English has been a dead language since the early part of the 21st century, when America’s impetuous and maniacal president triggered a nuclear war that destroyed his country and the whole of Western civilization. This means my paper is an important find, and our English-language expert is eager to get to it.

After laboring for two years, he releases a synopsis of his findings:

As is well-known, early 21st century America was obsessed with food. Available data suggests many Americans were overweight or obese by this period of time. It is unlikely, therefore, that the author chose the words “fed up” by accident. This was possibly an unconscious reference to the unhealthy American culture, which he appropriated in an odd way to refer to his feelings for his son’s room.

Fragments from several religious volumes (Christian in nature) were found in the same house as this note, which have striking significance for his use of the adjective “filthy” to refer to his son’s room. The word can simply mean “dirty,” but the religious bent of the author suggests a deeper meaning. As is well known, the Christian religion has a long tradition of referring to unclean or morally impure things as “filthy.” This indicates the author’s problem with the room was not so much “untidiness,” as “moral unsuitability.” What this moral defect was, we cannot say. Perhaps the son was failing in some dire Christian duty, in which case the adjective “filthy” is more about moral failure than a simple “dirty room.” Note also the use of the world “cleanse,” which is also pregnant with Christian religious implications. Likewise, the phrase “error of his ways” also carries religious overtones, and may be a free paraphrase from a religious text.

Hopefully, you can see how stupid this kind of reasoning is. This is all idiotic. You might have even laughed a time or two. But, how often have you read bible commentary writers doing the very same thing? As the poet Robert Plant said, “it really makes me wonder . . .”

But, our Madagascar scholar isn’t done yet. Here is the crux of it:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this find is the phrase “I shall let the chips fall where they may.” Extensive archaeological monographs have shown this region, now a vast nuclear-scarred wasteland, used to be known as the “Pacific Northwest,” and was renowned for lush vegetation and large amounts of trees.

No doubt, the author had this in mind as he penned these words. Perhaps, from his home, he looked out at the vast forest surrounding his abode, and penned these words as he watched lumberjacks cutting down trees. Immersed as he was in this kind of environment, it is folly to assume he was not influenced by it.

We conclude the author deliberately used this idiom as a result of his context. In this analogy, the son is the lumberjack, and the “chips” which fall are the result of the son’s actions. These should be morally suitable “chips,” but they are not. So, the father (our author) has decided to let the “chips fall where they may,” and let the son suffer the consequences of his own action.

It is evident that background knowledge of a culture provides critical context for interpretation, none more so than in this case.

Back to reality

The example is over. What do you think about our scholar’s learned and amazing comments about the “chips?” What do you think about his assumption that I was influenced by my context when I wrote, “I shall let the chips fall where they may?”

Our Madagascar scholar might suspect this, but he’ll never actually know. But he’s banking on it, isn’t he? When you look at everything he wrote (above), is any of it actually true?

Nope. None of it. Think about that when you read a bible commentary that veers off into speculation, or listen to a preacher who engages in flights of fancy.

So, what was Jesus referring to in Revelation 3:15-16? You figure it out! But, remember this – those who prefer the second interpretation might be doing the very same thing our Madagascar scholar did . . .

Notes

[1] For a representative example of this interpretation, see Leon Morris, Revelation, in TNTC, vol. 20, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 84.

[2] I was inspired to make this example by a similar one from Moises Silva, God, Language and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 11-14

They’re Watching . . .

Dear friends:

I’m begging you – because you’re foreigners and temporary residents here, keep far away from the worldly lusts which are doing battle against the soul.

Always keep your whole way of life pure among the unbelieving nations, so that as they speak evil about you as though you’re criminals, because of your good deeds (which they’re watching) they might give honor to God on that day when He returns to judge the world.

Submit yourselves to every human authority for the Lord’s sake, whether to [the] emperor as one who governs, or to [the] officials who are being sent by him to punish evildoers and praise those who do right.

Because this is God’s will, that by doing right you’d silence the ignorant slander of foolish men — like freed slaves, and not like those who’re wearing this freedom like a cloak of wickedness, but like God’s slaves.

Respect all men. Love the family of believers. Always have fearful reverence for God. Always respect the Emperor.

  • 1 Peter 2:11-17 (my translation)

Living Stones in God’s House

Peter has a lot of practical advice for Christians. His original audience were believers who faced “unofficial” hostility from society. The storm cloud of official, state-sanctioned persecution had not yet broken, but it didn’t a meteorology degree to see it was coming soon. These new Christians faced all sorts of pressures from evil-intentioned and well meaning people, alike.

Some were Jews who embraced Jesus as the long-promised Messiah, and had been abandoned by their family, their synagogue, their community – effectively, they were non-persons. Cast adrift, they had no family and no social support structure besides other members of their Christian congregation.

Other believers were former pagans, who had renounced everything their society and culture stood for. They found themselves to be an unexpected minority, likewise cut off from a world they used to move quite easily and freely in.

Whether Jew or Gentile, the temptation to soften the shaper edges of the Christian message were the same. If they could only see their way clear to reinterpret some of the more “objectionable” things (like, say Jesus’ deity, His miraculous resurrection, His exclusive claim to be the only conduit for salvation and eternal life), then perhaps life would be easier.

One of the reasons Peter wrote his letter was to tell them to not give in to this self-delusion. Over and over again, he emphasized that Christians have been called to suffer for Christ’s sake. He stressed the idea of Christians in community with one another; fellow exiles trying to make our way in this wicked world together, serving the Lord and waiting for Him to return to fix everything.

This passage today, 1 Peter 2:4-10, is all about mission and purpose. What on earth are Christians here to do? What is our mission? Peter tells us all about that today.

  • How should you think of a church? What is its mission?
  • How should you visualize the people who make up a church?
  • If you’re a Christian, why did God save you? For what purpose?
  • What does God think of you as?
  • What implications does all this have for your life, for your job, for the way you should view yourself?
  • What implications does this have for the way you should think about your position or station in life?

All this, and more, is what Peter’s message here is all about. Take a listen, and consider what all this means for your congregation, and your personal and unique role in the life of your church. More than that, consider what it means for who you are, and why God made you the person you are today.

The PDF notes for today’s lesson are here. As always, all audio files and PDF notes for all lessons are here. Unless I note otherwise, you can assume the translation from 1 Peter is mine.

Generic Parchment Reference (ES)

How to Study the Bible (Part 3)

books2Read the series so far.

I’m continuing my little series on Bible study, and I have something truly profound for you this evening. Yes, it’s true. I have something so unique, so original, so earth-shattering and so awesome that your mind may literally explode. Stop reading now, if you’re not 100% certain you’re ready . . .

I am going to tell you the true secret to Bible study. This is the most important step, but most people don’t touch it. They know about it, but they ignore it. They’d rather rely on work from other people, like pastors, theologians or Christian media personalities who generally know nothing.

What is this secret? I’ll tell you. Get ready . . .

Collect Information About the Subject You’re Studying

Yes. Amazing, isn’t it? If you want to know what the Bible really teaches about a particular topic, you collect all the information about that topic.

Say you want to learn all about what, exactly, a congregation ought to be doing. What constitutes a “church?” What building blocks need to be there for a church to actually be a church? I wrote about this briefly, in an introduction to my own study on this very topic. How do you even begin to study this?

You Start Small

The entire Bible is a bit daunting. So, start with a single author. Figure out, for example, what Luke had to say about a church. That’s much more manageable. Get a notepad, a pen, and your Bible. Start reading. Note every passage that speaks to your topic. Finish reading Luke. Rejoice.

Expand Your Scope

You finished Luke. Yay. You win a cookie.

After you finish the cookie, see what Peter had to say about a church. Then John. Then James. Then Jude. Then Paul.

At the end of the day, you have a whole mountain of data to work with. I’ll talk about how to do that in the next installment. For now, let me emphasize this – you’ll never be able to really study the Bible unless you collect and analyze the data yourself.

Don’t Assume Anything

We all have theological assumptions; a particular grid we interpret the Bible through. It’s very easy to ignore, overlook or misinterpret evidence that doesn’t fit neatly into our favored “system.”

I’m a dispensationalist. I don’t agree with a lot of the system, but I agree with the bare essentials of it. But, suppose I come across something that goes against dispensationalism. What should I do? Ignore it, because dispensationalism is always right? Or, make a note of it, because I (and the folks who taught me) could have got it wrong?

I hope you made the second choice.

Don’t be a mindless robot, blindly accepting a pre-packaged set of beliefs and interpretive grids. Most of the time, those grids are biblical, helpful and useful. But, in the finer points, there is always room for improvement and better understanding. There are different perspectives. You can be a mindless robot and ignore competing ideas, or you can keep an open mind and always be willing to let the text of Scripture correct your preconceived notions.

Do you want to believe something because you were told it’s true? Or, would you rather believe it because you looked at all the evidence yourself, and are actually convinced it’s true?

When a Biblical Author Talks About Your Topic, Pay Close Attention

Don’t build a mountain out of a passing comment or phrase that has nothing to do with the subject under discussion. In 1 John 2:2, the Apostle John mentioned that Jesus “is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Nice. That speaks to the extent of Christ’s atonement. Cool. Is that John’s point, in this book, though? Nope. It was a passing comment, a quick reference. Make a note of it, but give priority to passages that directly teach the subject you’re studying.

Which passage speaks about the church more directly; John 13:34-35 or 1 Peter 1:22 – 2:10? Yes, they both have insight about the topic, but which one speaks directly to the topic? That’s the one you should give more weight to.

What Does This Look Like?

Here is an example of some information I’ve gathered about the topic “what is a church.” I took all this from the Book of Acts, following the exact method I just explained to you. Here it is:

marks

This is just a sample; I have a LOT more information. But, you get the idea. This isn’t hard; but it takes time. It takes determination. It takes constructive thought.

Most people will never do this work. I’m not naïve. But, you can do this work. You have time. You need a pad of paper, your Bible, a pen, a few minutes a day, and some prayer. You can do this. It took me several weeks to gather all my data. It might take you less time, or more. It’ll be worth it.