Congregational Identity

In a previous post, A TULIP by any other name , I posed the question “So, how and to what degree should we seek theological clarity? Does it even matter?”.

A small church pastor of my acquaintance, some years ago, proposed that not only does it not matter but that giving it any importance is wrong and divisive. In the words of the Apostle Paul “May it never be!”.

We are in effect asking what purpose and value there is in theological inquiry, and if it is mandated biblically for the congregation at large. I would propose that not only is it mandated, but to do otherwise would be to ultimately revert to a pre-Reformation state, with an all powerful Magisterium. Further, this would reduce any real Bible reading to word repetition with only magical significance, again falling back to the Magisterium understanding. Surely this not where we are lead to go!

As to the mandate to study the Scriptures, we have only to cite the Bereans, who are praise as correct for searching the Scriptures day and night to attain understanding (Acts 17:11).

Now to the purpose and value there is in theological inquiry.

Let’s start by considering an underlying issue at hand. How does a church get its identity? Or more appropriately – how should a church get its identity? Any difference between the does and the should will help with our original question.

When you think of a church with which you are familiar, what do you think of?

Do you think of their great contribution to the community? Do you think of their great childrens programs and activities. What of their assistance to those in need physically or mentally? Do you think of the wonderful people who attend there? Do you think of their support for the family or marriage in trying times?

If those are the attributes that come to mind, then those are the things that form the identify of that church before the world, the things into which their energy and thought are poured.

All of these things are good in themselves, but are they the primary reason for the church to exist? Do they bring to mind the primary place that believers are to draw identity from? It would not appear so.

All of the attributes listed are supporting things of world. They are secular in nature. All are addressed by other good and honourable agencies, possibly even more effectively than by the church. Though these good works are certainly the hallmark of the church, they can not be the primary distinguishing characteristic because they are man-centered.

Man-centered activities are of the flesh by nature, derived from the mind of flesh. As such, they are can not lead to spiritual things. As Galatians 5:17 states “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”

Things of the flesh and programs based upon it can not produce an identity that is based in the Lord. They are an anathema to one another and the identity produced is of the world.

Does this mean that this identity is bad or evil. Not at all. But is does mean that it, like the fallen man from whom it springs, is not of God and can not by definition truly please god. They do not develop an identity based in Christ. They can not. They are of the world and as such unacceptable before God. As Scripture states, they are clothed in “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), no matter how good they appear.

Conversely, do think of the church in terms of their love of Christ, their dedication to His Word, their passion to understand it, their joyful worship, their passion for glorifying Christ and the Father in everything, almost forgetting their programs and such?

These are things of the Spirit. They lead to correct understanding and to correct standing before God. They are the reason that we were created.

Part of this pursuit is the desire to understand the precepts which the Lord has given us in His Word. To follow His precepts we must understand them and His Word is our source. So (as did the Bereans) we study them, their meaning and the resultant biblical doctrine as a first priority. Following this doctrine in common understanding gives us identity with its source.

The identity of the believers and their church should have nothing whatsoever to do with the programs, works and activities of worldly life. It must be grounded solely in the Word and its precepts (doctrine). This is where the true church draws its identity and the only way it can be know as belonging to Christ. This is precisely the opposite to the worldly focus initially described.

That said, this does not denying the value of programs and activities . They are invaluable. They are not, however, the basis of the church nor the primary focus of believers. They are fruit – an after effect of correct identity, when energy is focused upon Christ and the Word.

So, back to our original questions. The sole source of identity of the church, supporting the faith of believers, is the focus on our Lord and His worship, the seeking of theological truth from the Word and the communication of biblically correct doctrine.

These matters of theology are not small differences. Correct doctrine binds believers together in worship of God, creating a solid church. Without that, identity is a fleeting feeling based in programs that succeed or fail in the world. And without foundational agreement, the body is not solid, but frail.

Identity based upon worldly matters may in fact create a church, but it is not the church of Jesus Christ.

A TULIP by any other name…

For God says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I have mercy, and I will show compassion to whomever I show compassion.” So then, it does not depend on the person who wants it nor the one who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very reason I raised you up, in order to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. Romans 9:15-18

As believers, we serve a totally sovereign God, who demonstrates His absolute freedom in saving His elect as suits His own purposes. Being the result of His sovereign will alone, the calling of His elect proclaims that salvation does not depend upon man who wills or man who runs but on God who has mercy.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Giving Offence to God – Part 3

Finally, with all the peripheral groups dealt with, we come to the reason for this set to posts and the real question at hand.

2. The unbeliever actively praying.

Worldly sense would say that this person is actively ingratiating themselves to God by this act of supplication. You could say “Surely this brings blessing to this person?”.

First, their status before a Righteous and Holy God. As with all human beings (past, present and future), this unregenerate person is in open rebellion against God in two ways: 1. by not acknowledging Him as God, creator and sustainer of all that is (see Rom 3:20 below) , and not worshiping Him accordingly: and 2. by not believing in His Son as their sole saviour. Their failure is this regard results is their being wicked, as in our verse from the previous post.

The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,  (Prov 15:3a)

Or the even more pointed

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; (Prov 21:27a)

Notice that their are no caveats or exceptions. The wicked are always an abomination to the Lord. That means that their state makes everything they do an abomination to Him. Outside of salvation in Christ, can anyone be righteous in anything before God? No, not one (Rom 3:10b).

So, we have a person who is in active rebellion against what his Creator requires of him, who actively denies that Creator’s sovereignty and Son, approaching God in a way that He (God) has reserved for believers.

Let us think back in the Old Testament to Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron (Lev 10:1-2). What happened to them when they inappropriately performed what the Lord specified. Right! – the Lord put them to death. So, the Lord clearly takes a very dim view of those who approach Him inappropriate and with the wrong attitude of submission and worship.

Since, as mentioned above, the unregenerate person is inherently and completely tainted by sin, all that they do is similarly tainted and can not please God. Their rebellion is reflected in the essence of who they are and thus in everything that they do. Moreover, their execution of actions that are reserved for believers, who are pleasing to God, is an even greater affront to the Lord.

If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination. (Prov 28:9)

In conclusion -> This individual is putting themselves at further enmity with God by performing this act of supposed worship – digging the hole deeper, so to speak. They are incapable of acceptable worship or supplication in their spiritual condition and their attempt to approach God is an affront.

Unpleasant though it sounds, this is the biblical message, and it glorifies God by demonstrating His absolute, unwavering righteousness and justice. He is holy and can not abide unholiness.

Every unbeliever is called by all of creation around them to acknowledge the sole and total sovereignty of God. There are no exceptions.

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. So they are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)

They are further called to repent of their worldly self and turn to His only son Jesus Christ.

Only then are their worship and supplications acceptable to God – becoming a living sacrifice and “a pleasant aroma to the Lord.  (Numbers 15:13)

For the Glory of God alone!

 

Giving Offence to God – Part 2

So, the big question is, what about the unbeliever who is doing the praying. They are, after all, praying for good things.

As mentioned previously, their prayer is being used by God for both the benefit of the elect and the sanctification and definite redemption of His creation. Does this count as redemptive credit to the unbeliever, in some way bringing them closer to salvation?

The short answer, to steal a phrase from Paul, is “May it never be!”. In other words – absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite, as we shall see.

Actually there are two groups to consider here: unbelievers passively in the audience and the unbeliever praying.

1. The passive unbelieving attendee

To be clear, this is not the ‘yet unsaved’ member of the elect. They were dealt with in the Part 1 post.

This is the remaining, non-elect, passive unbelieving attendees.

“The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.” Prov 15:9

Since all of the fallen, that is all of mankind throughout all of the ages since the Fall, are at enmity with God by default, in active rebellion against Him, and serving Satan, nothing in this situation affects their status. The wicked are all those who are not redeemed.

However, that is not to say that they do not contribute to God’s program of redemption, but only that this contribution (since God uses all things to the benefit of His program) does not benefit or change their status before Him. The only thing that can change that is salvation.

Further, since this situation, like all of creation, confronts them with the sovereignty of God, they are herein implicitly commanded to acknowledge His sovereignty. Their denial and failure to do so is an ongoing affront (wickedness) to Him.

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened.” Romans 1:20-21

 

 

 

 

Giving Offence to God – Part 1

In a post a while ago (Five Points and Luke 6:45-49) I stated “Now, in reference to apparent good verbal acts of the unsaved, these are good in the natural sense. They can not, however, appear good to God since their root does not emanate from God.” I would like to follow this train of thought a bit further. Fasten your set belt please, as the going may get a tad rough.

Let me pose a scenario: You are visiting a group of friends or family, and you sitting down to a meal together. Or you are at a large, primarily secular gathering, for the meal. Countless other scenes are possible in your memory I am sure. In line with modern inclusiveness, ecumenical sensitivity, and in deference to you or other ‘religious’ folk in the room, the non-Christian leader says a prayer for the meal and all who are in attendance.

Now let us look thru a Biblical lens at the attitude of God to and the efficacy of this praying.

We know that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). First, this covers the believers in attendance. This is not qualified and is irrespective of the current circumstance. It is also exclusive. That is, God works in the interests of His elect only. As such, they are blessed. I think that I would even extend this to any yet unsaved elect in attendance, since they are headed for the Lord, so to speak.

Next, “all things work together for good” is inclusive of all circumstances, working for the ongoing sanctification and redemption of the elect in God’s purposes. So we have not only individual benefit to the elect but also to the Lord’s “purposes” in creation. This would included the benefit to the earth of eventually being released from the effects of the Fall, under which it continually suffers (Romans 8:19-23). Again, this is irrespective of circumstance or in this case who is the active agent in the scenario.

So God uses all circumstances for the good of His elect and His creation, all in the movement forward of His program.

Since He is absolutely sovereign in all things, there are no surprises or variances to Him. His program can not be thwarted and even the worst scenario will be used in the interest of the elect and towards Heaven.

Next, the sticky part…

Powerful verses

Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.'” Jeremiah 23:16-17

What a couple of verses!

This could have been spoken and written today. How many places can you think of that it applies, both inside and outside the church?

Even with just the Solas Christ alone, as documented in the Scripture alone in mind, comparison to the world inside and outside the church sure gives lots of application…

 

Then equals now…

In Isaiah 29:13 we have
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,”

And repeated in Matt 15:8-9
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”

Remind you of today? Surely these are verses that could describe our times as well the times in which they were written – a people who purport to be of the Lord, yet honouring Him only in words and worldly activity. Or churches that are filled with worldly programs and concerns as first priority, rather than the fear of the Lord and the Gospel –  front and center.

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, (Acts 17:29-30)

Notice that there is no time limit on this statement going forward. It is from that time forward, to the end (the return of our Lord). Unlike the things of men, God is not at our beck and call, available when we decide to call Him.  Nor is He conceived in terms that would imply we somehow have input to His demands upon us. The Lord is separate (outside our reality) and sovereign, demanding repentance from every single person, irrespective of their feeling or expectations in the matter.

Even aside from the fact that He is the sole creator, owner and sustainer of all, He gives another more explicit reason that should speak to every person.

“because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

Christ will judge every person. Ultimate power is demonstrated in raising him from the dead, showing God’s absolute sovereignty. And since, as God, Jesus is completely righteous and holy, exactly the same as the character of the Father in all aspects, judgment can brook no compromise or excuse.

The only course of actions is clear. Repent and believe in Jesus Christ! What else can one say? The day of judgment looms for every human being, and failure to turn wholly to Jesus will bring the unthinkable to each one who does not. But then it will be too late.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:2)

This grace and peace is, as expressed through the Biblical context, only available to those who belong to Jesus, the Lamb of God.

 

Fret not…but we do (Part 2)

The world is the creation and possession of the Lord. He and He alone sovereignly controls it in all things. As we often sing in hymn, “the battle belongs to the Lord”.

As a backdrop it is important to remember Ephesians 6:12 “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Our reality is a reflection of much larger struggles than might be apparent on the surface. And in those struggles while viewing the world, though we are always imperfect as men (or women), intent counts. Even our intent in differing to Him and turning from fretting is a significant form of praise and worship, which is our primary purpose as His creatures.

Our purpose is to praise and worship Him. Irrespective of the world around us, our task is to preach the Gospel and to follow His commandments.

What unbelievers do is between them and the Lord. They alone answer before Him. They are not ‘of us’ and we are not ‘of them’. If they have gone out from us (or never were with us), then they were never of us. (1 John 2:19)

When someone rejects the Lord, with all that implies, they and all that they are offends God, who is holy and righteous. They may have offended us, but having offended God they have much bigger problems! It is God’s mandate, not ours, to deal with it. If we have preached the Gospel in word and deed, and are not knowingly participating in their iniquities, then we are worshiping appropriately. Their worldly iniquities may be dealt with by the state, but that also is within the mandate granted by the Lord. One way or the other, their iniquities before Him will be dealt with by Him, in His time.

The second part of Prov 24:19 tells us not to envy them. Why? Envy can be even more insidiously than fretting. In the background, it aligns one with the object envied – in this case the sinner, his activities and their worldly fruits. It draws one into the world of flesh and away from spirit. That is the antithesis of our correct alignment with the Lord.  Recall that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal 5:17). You can not serve two masters.

We must always bear in mind the real fruits of the worldly activities of the unbeliever are always bring condemnation because, in their willful rejection of the Lord they always serve Satan. This in not always apparent in any surface success we might observe. Irrespective of appearances, we have no part in that since it is not worship acceptable to God.

Prov 23:17 similarly admonishes the believer not to align with the sinner. But then we are given the correct posture. We are to continue in the fear of the LORD all the day. And what is that fear of the Lord? It is completing our duty as His people.

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl 12:13)

And how do we keep His commandments?

Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge. (Prov 23:12)

In other words, read and attend solely to the Word of God. Significantly, it does not say that we will always be successful. But again, intent counts.

And we are to do this all the day. That’s 24/7 folks.

We might even make the message clearer by somewhat boldly combining the verses to yield

Fret not yourself because of evildoers…but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.

Along with the method we are given (keeping His commands from His Word), this presents the optimal stance for the believer striving for closeness with the Lord and holiness. Disregard the sinner and the sinful world in the sense of personal worry, and concentrate wholly on the things of the Lord.

We are, after all, not of this world. We are, to steal a phrase from the title of Robert Heinlein’s archetypal SciFi novel “Strangers in a Strange Land”.

 

Fret not… but we do (Part 1)

Fret(ting)an irritated state of mind; annoyance; vexation. An ongoing state that is corrosive and abrasive.

Fret not yourself because of evildoers, and be not envious of the wicked, (Prov 24:19)

Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day. (Prov 23:17)

Yet many believers that I know fret quite a bit about one thing or another. Let’s consider these two verses, with the help of the couple of others.

First, the grammar. These are not suggestions, as in “Try not to fret if you can help it..” or “It is understandable to fret but you should resist it…” etc., etc. Even though these are Proverbs and therefor somewhat general words of wisdom, these are nonetheless more that mere offhanded suggestions for optimal living. Let’s remember “which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Luke 12:25). The phrase “do not be anxious” appears numerous times in the New Testament, applying to the circumstances and concerns of life. Overall, Christians are admonished throughout the New Testament to worry for nothing because our sovereign Lord has it all in hand, always.

Now, Let us narrow to a particular kind of fretting that seems to be encouraged in our day. That is, fretting about the declining state of the world and the seemingly universal actions of ungodly people. Many believers seem to spend a great amount of time in fretting about these two topics.

In Prov 24:19 we are instructed to stop worrying about the second of these – the evil being perpetrated in the world by others. The wicked cited here are unbelievers, since they are evildoers (ie. sons of disobedience – Ephesians 2:2), outside the circle of the saved (or elect).

But if we are not to fret over them, what are we to do, if anything? “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God ” (Rom 12:19). Dealing with the wicked and their iniquity is the exclusive mandate of the Lord. Both judgment and vengeance are His alone, not ours. In fact, if we judge, we will be judged similarly (Matt 7:1), since we too are recalcitrant sinners all.

Bear in mind that this worry is different from discernment. We are not to judge, but we should be discerning and avoid willful association (aside from entering situations to preach the Gospel) with the sinful behaviours and their perpetrators. This require appropriate situational judgment and thought, which is separate from the judgment of the Lord.

This is also separate from the requirement for enforcement of law and order within society. That is separately mandated to the state by the Lord. As such, the that judgment is part of His mandate and within his sovereign plans.

Since we, having “Put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11), are instructed not to worry, it would seem rebellious to do so. God is absolutely sovereign in all things in the world. It is His concern and not ours. We are to live in faith, within the outworking of His sovereign plans. To make the worry ours is to claim a portion of His sovereignty in ourselves.

Yet, like Paul (Rom 7:15), we often do what we endeavor not to do! Thank heavens for Grace!

With all this in mind, if we are not to fret, what are we to do?

Irrespective of the world around us, our task is to preach the Gospel and to follow His commandments.

By the way, it never says easy…