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The Four Stages of Learning

Saturday, October 16, 2021

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”

(Mt. 28:19-20)

Learning is an essential part of both our conversion and continued spiritual growth. The first Christians were marked by their devotion to “the apostle’s teaching…” (Acts 2:42). Before being converted, we must first “learn Christ” and “hear about him” (Eph. 4:20). Then we must continue to be “taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:20-21). The result of this continued education is a practical change in one’s life, a renewal that begins in the “spirit” of one’s “mind,” where the old ways of thinking and behaving are “put off” in place of the new way that Jesus modeled (Eph. 4:22-24). In this process of growth we are learning the skill of following Christ.

In psychology, there is a model known as the four stages of learning or the four stages of competence. It is based on the premise that before learning can really begin, people need to be made aware of their incompetence. Notice the spiritual parallels:

Unconscious incompetence — The first stage of learning is called unconscious incompetence. In this stage, we are not even aware that a skill or knowledge gap exists. Those of us who came to Christ with little to no knowledge of Scripture were unconsciously incompetent. We didn’t know how to live right due to our ignorance. What psychology does not account for—and where this parallel falls short—is that this ignorance is not innocent (Eph. 4:17-19). Our problem was not intellectual but moral. God gave us all a moral conscience that we violated and trained to sin so that we “were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).

Conscious incompetence — In conscious incompetence, we are made aware our incompetence and understand the importance of acquiring the new skill. In our case, the “incompetence” is our moral failure and the “new skill” is living like Christ. Through the faithful proclamation of the gospel we are made aware that there is a gap between our present life and the one we are called to in Christ. The crowd’s response on Pentecost to Peter’s preaching illustrates the moment they become conscious of their moral failure: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”” (Acts 2:37) Convicted of their sin, they were now free to learn.

Conscious competence — In conscious competence, we know how to use the skill or perform the task, but doing so requires practice, conscious thought and hard work. All Christians are in this stage of learning; trying to bridge the gap between discerning “what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10, 17) and actually carrying it out faithfully. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2) Through practice (“testing”), our minds are being “trained” to do God’s will (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This spiritual growth requires conscious thought and hard work (2 Pet. 1:3-11).

Unconscious competence — Finally, in this stage, we have enough experience being a Christian that we start behaving like Jesus unconsciously. In other words, doing the right thing for the right reason becomes “second nature” to us. While sin can corrupt the mind, grace can transform our mind and train us to “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.” (Titus 2:12-14) This is what we are all striving for and, by the grace of God, will achieve in the end. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6) In that day, God will complete his work of sanctifying our lives and we will live on forever with him as people who perfectly reflect his image.

The Virtues of Hatred & Intolerance

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Perhaps the two greatest evils in modern society are hatred and intolerance. We are taught that all hatred is categorically wrong and intolerance is not to be tolerated. While hatred and intolerance can be evil, there are virtues to them as well. As is often the case, those who live only according to the wisdom of this world overcorrect and oversimplify. But as Christians, we understand that while we are called to love, patience, and tolerance (Eph. 4:1-3), there are some things we ought to hate and be intolerant of.

For example, Jesus praised the church in Ephesus for their intolerance of wicked behavior and teaching (Rev. 2:2, 6) while he rebuked the church at Thyatira for tolerating it (Rev. 2:20). Paul called out the Corinthians for tolerating a kind of immorality which even the pagan Roman culture denounced! (1 Cor. 5:1-2)

There are many positive examples of hatred in the Bible as well. We should hate bribery (Ex. 18:21), what is wicked (Psa. 26:5), evil (Psa. 97:10), worthless (Psa. 101:3-4), false (Psa. 119:104, 163) and unjust (Amos 5:15). Wisdom gives a list of seven things we should hate including pride, lying, violence, and division (Prov. 6:16-19). Solomon says there is “a time to love, and a time to hate” (Ecc. 3:8).

Clearly, there are virtues to hatred and intolerance. But to get it right, our hatred and intolerance must be directed at things which are truly evil. One way we can learn to hate evil is to love what is good. Consider Paul’s words: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Rom. 12:9) Our love for what is good will naturally cause us to hate and be intolerant of what is evil. Love is not blind acceptance nor does it “rejoice at wrongdoing.” Rather love is discerning and “rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). We may simultaneously love someone and disagree with them, disapprove of their beliefs and behavior, even to hate their convictions.

A.W. Tozer wrote about this fifty years ago in Man: The Dwelling Place of God: “A new Decalogue has been adopted by the neo-Christians of our day, the first word of which reads ‘Thou shalt not disagree;’ and a new set of Beatitudes too, which begins ‘Blessed are they that tolerate everything, for they shall not be made accountable for anything.’ It is now the accepted thing to talk over religious differences in public with the understanding that no one will try to convert another or point out errors in his belief… Imagine Moses agreeing to take part in a panel discussion with Israel over the golden calf; or Elijah engaging in a gentlemanly dialogue with the prophets of Baal. Or try to picture our Lord Jesus Christ seeking a meeting of minds with the Pharisees to iron out differences.”

Richard J. Mouw,in his book Uncommon Decency wrote: “Christian civility does not commit us to a relativistic perspective. Being civil doesn’t mean that we cannot criticize what goes on around us. Civility doesn’t require us to approve of what other people believe and do. It is one thing to insist that other people have the right to express their basic convictions; it is another thing to say that they are right in doing so. Civility requires us to live by the first of these principles. But it does not commit us to the second formula. To say that all beliefs and values deserve to be treated as if they were on a par is to endorse relativism—a perspective that is incompatible with Christian faith and practice. Christian civility does not mean refusing to make judgments about what is good and true. For one thing, it really isn’t possible to be completely nonjudgmental. Even telling someone else that she is being judgmental is a rather judgmental thing to do!”

A healthy hatred of what is evil and a proper love for what is good is not always intuitive. These are things we must be taught. Thankfully, God, by his Spirit, spoke to us in his word. May God give us a growing, discerning love so that we can “approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” (Phil. 1:9-11)

The Importance of Song Worship

Saturday, October 02, 2021

We have seen a tremendous shift over the past fifty years in how denominations approach song worship. Fifty years ago, the common practice was congregational singing along with choirs and musical accompaniment, a deviation from the Scriptural pattern of the churches in Acts but a pattern which had not changed since the Victorian era. Today, this “traditional” approach has fallen out of style if favor of something completely new. Why the sudden change?

Popular books like Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church— which claims to be a church-growth handbook—advocate making the assembly more “seeker-sensitive” by removing the expectation for visitors to sing. The worship, therefore, is conducted more like a concert where visitors can feel comfortable observing. While it is good to be sensitive to visitors to the assembly (a principle Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 12:20-25), God is the “seeker” we must be most sensitive toward (Jn. 4:23). When it comes to our worship, God is seeking heartfelt participants not mere spectators. Following are six reasons why singing in worship is still important today.

Our worship is a sacrifice of praise. Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Under the Law of Moses, faithful Jews would offer sacrifices to praise God. Those sacrifices were active (not passive) and intentional (not accidental). One did not worship God merely by experiencing the ambiance at the temple. The act of sacrifice engaged the mind and senses. Worship under the new and better covenant is also a “sacrifice,” albeit a living one! (Rom. 12:1) The words we sing with our “lips” are our heartfelt sacrifice to the Lord (Mt. 12:34).

Our worship is an expression of joy. James 5:13 says, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” Singing praises to God gives us a vehicle to express our joy and directs that joy heavenward. Expressing that praise in song not only acknowledges the origin of our joy but also completes our joy. When we experience something wonderful, we are compelled to verbalize it.

Our worship is an outpouring of the word. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” A heart filled with God’s word overflows with grateful singing. This has the added effect of “teaching and admonishing” others around you. As a side note, this passage also instructs us to select hymns with rich Scriptural content.

Our worship is a symbol of authority. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” The words “whatever you do” would certainly include the method and manner of our worship. Coming on the heels of the previous verse, this is by no means a stretch in application. Acting ‘in someone’s name’ means both representing him and being empowered to do so. We can be certain that we have the authority from Jesus to worship him by singing. Let us not add to that command in any way so it can truly be done “in his name.”

Our worship is a sign of the Spirit. Ephesians 5:18-19 says, “…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” In context, Paul is teaching Christians to imitate God’s character. He compares one who is “drunk with wine” with one who is “filled with the Spirit.” The influence of wine leads to “debauchery” while the influence of God’s Spirit leads to a list of positive ‘spiritual side-effects,’ among them, singing spiritual songs together. This, along with the parallel passage above, teaches that one is filled with God’s Spirit as one is filled with God’s word.

Our worship is a display of unity. Romans 15:5-12 is part of the climax of Paul’s teaching on unity among Christians in Rome. The world was previously divided between Jews and Gentiles until Jesus came to fulfill and remove the barrier which separated them, the Law of Moses (Eph. 2:11-22). Paul’s goal was to see a unified Roman church that could glorify God “with one voice” (Rom. 15:6). He quotes a series of verses from the Old Testament inviting the Gentiles to praise God along with the Jews. Singing together as one spiritual family is an expression of that unity; it says, “We are together. We are in agreement. We share a common goal.”

The harmony we make with our lips is a physical expression of the spiritual harmony we enjoy together in Christ. Our singing should be the result of our living peacefully with one another and together with God. May God help us to protect our relationships and cultivate our unity together so that our singing can truly be “with one voice.”

The Promise of God

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The LORD God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,

    cursed are you above all livestock

    and above all beasts of the field;

on your belly you shall go,

    and dust you shall eat

    all the days of your life.

I will put enmity between you and the woman,

    and between your offspring and her offspring;

he shall bruise your head,

    and you shall bruise his heel.”

Genesis 3:14-15

The passage above is sometimes called the protoevangelium by biblical scholars because it is the very first announcement of the “good news” in Scripture. What is so striking about this promise is that it occurs immediately after sin first enters the world. This shows not only God’s foreknowledge of events but his predestined plan to defeat evil and save humanity. Much later, the apostle Paul calls this plan of salvation God’s “eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11; cf. 1:10-11). In Genesis 3, God actively sets this plan, which was “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20), into motion.

Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden (Gen. 3:1-7), resulted in the fracturing of God’s world. The natural order was turned on its head: instead of man leading woman and ruling over the beasts of the field together, which was God’s intention (Gen. 2:28), the beast (the serpent) led the woman, who led the man, which resulted in creation being “subjected to futility” (Rom. 8:20). Evil and death spread over creation and had severe effects on humanity.

The Curses — God presented a series of “curses” pertaining to the three beings involved in humanity’s downfall. These “curses” were not arbitrary punishments from God but the natural results which corresponded to the choices made and the people who made them. Adam and Eve would both suffer “pain,” prolonged toil and misery, in their respective roles.

The man, who was created from the ground, would struggle to get the ground to produce food. Adam’s primary “work” of farming would result in prolonged “pain” (Gen. 3:17-19), whereas the woman’s unique role in “childbearing” would be increasingly painful. This “pain” does not merely refer to the physical pain women suffer in childbearing but also includes the emotional suffering of childrearing (the word found here carries both meanings), that is, the pain of raising children in a sin-sick world (cf. Gen. 4:8).

The curses upon the man and woman were severe but they were indirect and mediated. The ground was cursed, not Adam. Eve’s womb and role as wife and mother were cursed not Eve herself. Their life was certainly made more difficult but the serpent was cursed directly (“cursed are you…” Gen. 3:14). There is hope for humanity but none for the serpent. Thus began the “enmity” between the serpent and the woman.

The Serpent — The identity of the serpent is later revealed as the devil or Satan, the adversary of God and humanity (Rev. 12:7-9; 20:1-3). It is a creature in rebellion against God who wants other created beings to doubt God’s goodness and set themselves against God’s purposes. He is opposed to life and all that is good.

The Seed — Notice how Gen. 3:15 develops. In 3:15a, the “enmity” is singular, a personal enmity between the serpent and the woman. In 3:15b, the “enmity” extends to the “offspring” of the serpent and the woman. “Offspring” or “seed” is a collective noun referring to a group or line of descendants. The Bible presents these groups clearly: the serpent’s “seed” are those who follow him and fall under his curse, while the “seed” of woman are those who oppose the serpent (see Gen. 4:12, Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 3:8-10).

Finally, notice how the woman’s “seed” becomes singular and the serpent comes back into view (“he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”). Out of this mysterious language a picture emerges. Eve, the representative woman, would someday bear a son who would crush the serpent’s head and destroy evil at its source. However, during the battle, the serpent will bite the son’s heel and both will die in a mutual destruction (God’s words suggest that the serpent is poisonous). Grabbing the heel is a Hebrew idiom for supplanting (Gen. 25:26) and trampling the head is an idiom for the complete subjugation of an enemy (Psa. 8:6; 110:1). Both are bruised but the more devastating blow is on the serpent’s “head.”

Interestingly, the serpent’s defeat comes not through the man but through the woman. It is “her” seed not “his.” The woman’s unique child-bearing capability would be the means of the serpent’s defeat. In Eden, the serpent used the woman for evil, but in Christ, God turns the tables (1 Tim. 2:13-15).

This all leads us to Jesus, God’s Son who, “when the fullness of time had come,” was “born of woman…” (Gal. 4:4). Jesus had no earthly father fulfilling Genesis 3:15’s “her”-seed-not-“his” promise (Mic. 5:2-3; Isa. 7:14; cf. Mt. 1:23). His death on the cross was that fatal snakebite. But this was no victory for the serpent, for, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead never to die again, defeating both sin and death. Though there is no New Testament passage which explicitly states the fulfillment of God’s curse upon the serpent, there are many allusions (1 Tim. 2:15; 1 Cor. 15:25; 2 Cor. 11:3-15; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:20-22; Rev. 12).

Genesis 3:15 is not exclusively a prophecy about Jesus. Amazingly, all those who are in Jesus also share in his victory over evil. Paul says that “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). Just as David fought Goliath as Israel’s representative, and Israel, through David shared in his victory, Jesus conquered Satan on our behalf, and we, through him, share in his victory!

Christ + Nothing = Everything

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae to fortify them against false teaching. Since Paul doesn’t come right out and state it, the exact nature of the heresy is difficult to determine. Colossae was never excavated so there is no archaeological evidence available to say what kind of local cults and religions may have been present. But examining his refutation of the heresy gives us several clues.

Depreciation of Christ — Early on in the letter, Paul emphasizes the supremacy of Christ with a beautiful poem (1:15-19). Evidently, there were some who thought of Christ merely as a beginning to their spirituality. To go on to maturity, some taught the need to follow certain rules and practices that go beyond what Jesus taught. Perhaps they thought of Christ as a created being less than God. Paul insists that Christ is “the image of God” and the agent of creation (1:15-16). Every created thing owes its existence to him, even the angelic beings, which some in Colossae evidently worshiped (2:18). Paul says that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus (1:19; 2:9), that Christ is supreme over all, and that there is no way of ever going beyond him to a higher spirituality. Any “philosophy,” therefore, that depreciates Jesus is “empty” (2:8).

Paganism — Paul also refers to “wisdom,” “knowledge,” (2:3) and “asceticism” (2:23) which may have had Greek roots. He makes a curious reference to the “elemental spirits of the world” (2:8, 20). The “elements” were the ABC’s of a subject. For example, letters are the elements of which words are composed. The “elements” came to mean the ‘stuff’ of which the universe is composed (2 Pet. 3:10, 12). But Paul also uses this phrase to refer to the basic teaching that brought us to faith in Christ found in the Law of Moses (Gal. 4:3, 9; also Heb. 6:1). Whatever this “elemental” teaching was, Paul assures the Colossians it was inferior to faith in Christ.

Judaism — Paul perhaps makes reference to Judaism as well when he writes of “human tradition” (2:8, 22) and food regulations (2:16, 21). The concepts of “circumcision” (2:11; 3:11) and the observance of certain festivals (2:16) are certainly Jewish. There were some Jews during this time who tried to persuade pagan Christians that their position was incomplete (Acts 15:5), a problem Paul labored against his entire ministry. Paul assures the Colossians that they have already been spiritually “circumcised” (2:11) and set free from the claims of Mosaic Law (2:16, 18, 20). If there was a Jewish influence in Colossae, Paul portrays Judaism as just as inferior to Christianity as paganism. Judaism in the Christian age is just another “philosophy” (2:8) and “human tradition” (2:8, 22). To follow the Old Law would be the same for these Gentiles as going back to paganism. Paul says it’s like clinging to the “shadow” when the “substance” (the one casting the shadow) has arrived (2:17).

Syncretism — What may have been going on in Colossae was a kind of syncretism: a blending of various religious ideas, practices, and philosophies. This was popular in the ancient world and enticing to newer, immature converts as it brought the ‘best of both worlds’ into the religious system. This “the-more-the-merrier” approach is still popular today in many so-called Christian traditions. But we don’t develop a religious system and try to fit Christ into it, nor do we use Christ as a mere basis and add to it. Paul’s argument is that Christ is the “head” that ties everything together. To be connected to God, one must be “holding fast to the head” (2:19).

The good news was that the Colossian church had not bought into these lies (1:3-5; 2:5; 3:7). Paul was writing, therefore, only to further ground them in the truth and protect them from error. We might sum up the thrust of the letter like this: Christ + nothing = everything. Paul's letter to the Colossians helps us properly calibrate our faith by regarding Jesus as supreme over all. We have nothing to gain and everything to lose by believing otherwise.

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