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A Deeper Righteousness

Saturday, October 17, 2020

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

(Matthew 5:20)

In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount he teaches us about the true righteousness of the kingdom, a righteousness that "exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees" (Mt. 5:20). This would have been surprising to the early disciples because the scribes and Pharisees were known for their strict obedience to God's law. They calculated that the Law contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions and they aspired to live by them all. And yet, Jesus says, their righteousness disqualified them from participation in the kingdom. Why wasn't their righteousness good enough? 

Kingdom righteousness far surpasses Pharasaic righteousness not in terms of quantity (as if Christians must fast three times per week because the Pharisees fasted twice per week, Lk. 18:12) but in quality. Kingdom righteousness is greater in the sense that it is deeper. It penetrates beyond our actions and words to our thoughts and motives. It goes beyond the letter of the Law to its intent.

Jesus was accused of being soft on the Law of Moses because he endorsed practices that many of his contemporaries viewed as lowering its spiritual and moral standards (Mt. 9:10-14; 12:1-13). In addition to his (apparently) unorthodox approach, Jesus spoke in his own name and with his own authority (Mk. 1:27; 2:23-3:6). This led many to believe that he was setting himself up as an authority over against the Law of Moses. But this view couldn't have been further from the truth.

Jesus clarifies his attitude toward the Law by stating that he did not come to "destroy [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them" (Mt. 5:17). He did not come to downplay the Law or lessen its demands. On the contrary, he came to bring them to completion and show their true meaning. He believed in the absolute authority of God's word and taught that its demands touched every facet of human life. His reverence of the Law extended not only to each letter but to each pen stroke (Mt. 5:18).

Jesus went on to illustrate his view of the Law, and to describe the true righteousness that the Law meant to inspire, in a series of antitheses (Mt. 5:21-48). Each one begins with a contrast introduced by the same formula: "You have heard that it was said... But I say to you." In each of these contrasts, Jesus is not contradicting the Law ("It is written...") but rather the scribes' and Pharisees' twisted interpretation of the Law ("It was said..."). The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of doing the very thing they accused Jesus of doing, relaxing the commandments of the Law (5:19) to make them more attainable. 

  • The scribes and Pharisees restricted the Law's commands - For example, they restricted the prohibition of murder and adultery to the physical acts alone, whereas Jesus shows the intent of the Law included the prohibition of the attitudes of heart that lead to the physical acts themselves.
  • The scribes and Pharisees extended the Law's permissions - They widened the permission of divorce beyond adultery to include the husband's every whim. They widened the permission of retribution beyond the public law courts to include personal revenge. Jesus reaffirmed the Law's original intent by restoring the Law's permission of divorce except on the grounds of adultery (while also restoring God's original design for marriage) and he strictly prohibited all revenge in personal relationships.

This abuse of God's word and this shallow righteousness are not the way of the Christ. Kingdom righteousness never seeks to lessen the Law's demands or extend its permissions to make obedience more attainable. Rather, disciples of Christ should seek to uphold the demands of Scripture with all their uncomfortable implications without trying to limit their scope or find loopholes to escape them. Kingdom righteousness goes deep and concerns itself with the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Law.

But who can live this life of heart-motivated obedience to God's word? Who can be "perfect" even as our Heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) The rest of the New Testament makes clear that, left to ourselves, this "righteousness" is beyond us. Righteousness is only found by faith in Christ who has fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law for us who live according to God's Spirit and not according to the flesh (Rom. 8:1-4). In this age of the New Covenant, the function of the Spirit within the heart of the forgiven sinner is to write God's law there and help us obey it (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:27). Therefore, Paul's statement in Romans that "Christ is the end of the Law" (Rom. 10:4) does not mean Christians are now free from its moral demands, for the exact opposite is the case (Rom. 3:31; 8:4). It means that acceptance with God does not come through obedience to the Law but through faith in Christ. The Law itself bore witness to this good news of salvation by faith (Rom. 3:21).

Because we have been shown the unfathomable love of God in his forgiveness of our sins in Christ we are free from the slavery of sin to live a life of freedom; freedom not from the demands of Scripture to live however we want, but freedom to live the full, forgiven, abundant life of obedience to God's commands. Only Jesus exhibited this perfectly, which is why the gospel calls for "the obedience of faith in Christ" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) rather than "faith in our obedience."

This leads us to one last distinction about this deep righteousness: the scribes and Pharisees "trusted in themselves that they were righteous" (Lk. 18:9) whereas those who possess kingdom righteousness are "poor in spirit" (Mt. 5:3) and recognize their total dependence upon God's grace and mercy to make them righteous (Lk. 18:10-14). May God give us the insatiable craving for this inner righteousness and find total satisfaction! (Mt. 5:6)

Evangelism in a Postmodern Culture

Saturday, October 10, 2020

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” 

(John 14:6

One of the difficulties of being witnesses to Jesus is the pushback of culture. Christianity is, by its very nature, counter-cultural and our postmodern culture can be resistant to the absolute claims of Christ. This presents a major obstacle in reaching their hearts and minds with the truth of the gospel. 

Many are rejecting any standards of absolute or objective truth in favor of relative truth and relative morality (What is true for you may not be true for someone else. Or what is right and moral may vary depending upon the situation.). Spirituality is traded for secularism, the process by which religious ideas, institutions and interpretations lose social significance. Any talk of God or the supernatural is pushed to the outside leaving a purely secular mindset.

Exclusive religious truth-claims have been traded with pluralism, which is a competing number of views as a worldview in which no one worldview is dominant. To many people Islam (though it is an exclusive religion) is just as true as Christianity or any other religion. This is the mindeset that believes we’re all working toward the same goal, we’re just going about it in different ways. 

Privatization is also becoming more popular; this is the act of internalizing those things which society does not feel should be expressed. In other words, you can worship whatever version of God you want just don’t do it in public or evangelize. Faith is individualized and privatized. 

If you have any understanding of Christianity you can see the problems with these views. So what do we do when we encounter pushback from a culture that rejects absolute truth-claims and exclusive faith that, by its nature, is public and not private?

What offends people is the binary system which separates humanity into two groups of people: those who have the truth and those who do not. Most people find this a naive oversimplification. For example, if a Christian makes a claim to know THE truth (Jn. 14:6) then the logical conclusion people draw is that they are living in error and ignorance. This is usually followed by accusations toward the offender of being narrow-minded and insulting. In our post-modern world, it is taboo to persuade people to believe something outside of ‘their’ truth because truth is relative to the individual. So, how do we respond?

Before a dialogue can commence, let alone progress, we must point out the inconsistencies of such thinking.

Logical inconsistency - If someone ever accuses you of being narrow or insensitive about trying to persuade them to believe what you believe they have just committed the crime they are accusing you of. By demonizing you for spreading your version of truth what are they doing but spreading theirs? How is a Christian trying to persuade a person to believe in the gospel so different than an unbeliever proselytizing believers to unbelief?

Philosophical inconsistency - Post-modern thinking is philosophical quicksand. Christians may be accused of separating the world into those who have the truth and those who do not, but our post-modern friends may turn around and say, “I’m one of the good people who don’t push my beliefs on others and you’re one of the bad people who do!” This is the height of hypocrisy and irony. There are two kinds of people in this world; people who make exclusive truth-claims and others who make exclusive truth-claims but don’t know they’re doing it! 

Emotional inconsistency - But the fallacy is not only logical and philosophical. It is also emotional. Imagine you had a child suffering from multiple sclerosis and you found a treatment that helped tremendously. How would you respond? You would naturally want to tell other parents whose children were suffering from this disease about the cure. Love for your neighbor (something our Postmodern friends will preach) would demand that you limit the suffering of others by sharing the good news of a cure. How absurd would it be to accuse such a person of being narrow-minded, insensitive or trying to push ‘their’ truth on others! 

Christians spread the gospel not simply because it is mandated by God but out of sincere love for their neighbor. It is compassion and love that motivates evangelism. We who have been rescued from the slavery of sin and death proclaim the good news of freedom and healing in Christ so others can benefit from God’s gift. 

So what holds a person back from not telling others about the salvation found only in Christ? I would suggest it is due to either one of two things: a lack of love for our neighbors or a lack of conviction about Jesus. 

Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian once said, "I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there's a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward.... How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?" 

Comments like this should cause every Christian to examine his or her conscience to see if they truly believe that Jesus really is “the way, the truth, and the life.” We may not come upon a traveler beaten within an inch of his life like the good Samaritan but we see our friends, neighbors, coworkers, family members and acquaintances spiritually battered and bloodied by the ravages of sin. Let us love our neighbor enough to tell him about the gift of God available to him through Jesus (Lk. 10:30-37).

God's Holy Name

Saturday, October 03, 2020

“But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.”
(Ezekiel 36:20-21)

What does it mean to "profane" God’s "holy name"? It does not mean merely to curse, swear or blaspheme God’s name as our modern word “profanity” might suggest.

To the Israelite, all of life was divided into two broad categories – the “holy” and the “common”. Most of life was common. There was nothing wrong with this. Ordinary people, places and things were simply common. If they were set apart for sacred use (‘sanctified’) then that made them "holy." The entire nation of Israel was holy, set apart from the rest of the nations of the world for God’s special purpose (Ex. 19:4-6). But for the most part, ordinary things in life were either clean (normally) or unclean (because of some ritual or moral defilement). 

So, the word “profane” is not necessarily derogatory or negative, it just means common or ordinary, no different from anything else in that category. Now we are getting closer to answering our question about what it means to "profane" God's "holy name." All holiness flows from the Lord, the one who is uniquely other, separate and exalted above everyone and everything. He is utterly distinct from all other things and his name cannot be classed among other things or other gods. He can never be common because he could never be one in a class of many. He is in a class all by himself, which is the very definition of holiness.

The Levitical priests were given the important task of instructing the Israelites about the distinctions between the holy and common (Lev. 10:10-11). But in Ezekiel’s day, far from teaching the distinctions, the priests taught that there was no distinction, thus doing violence to God’s law and profaning his name (Ezek. 22:26).

Babylonian exile was another huge step in the wrong direction for the nations to take notice of the Lord's holiness. You could imagine the discussions when God’s people were taken to Babylon.

“Who are these vagabonds?”

“These are Israelites taken from Judah by Nebuchadnezzar.” 

“What is the name of their God?” 

“I heard they call him ‘Yahweh.’”

“So, they are Yahweh’s people but they’ve been kicked out of Yahweh’s land? This Yahweh doesn’t sound very powerful. He’s probably not that much different that all the other nations’ gods our king has conquered. Praise Marduk!” (cf. 2 Kgs. 18:33-35)

This is how the ancient world thought about gods. The defeat of a nation meant the defeat of its god. And gods were only effective within the boundaries of their land. The Judean exiles were proof, according to the wisdom of the nations, that either Yahweh had abandoned his people because he was powerless (what Moses feared in Num. 14:16) or he was malicious (what Moses feared in Ex. 32:12). Either way, to the Babylonians, Yahweh was defeated and was no better than the rest of the national gods that had succumbed to the might of Babylon. Yahweh’s name would be mocked as a loser.

In exile, “wherever they came, they profaned my holy name.” (Ezek. 36:20) Instead of being Yahweh’s priesthood, shining his holiness to the rest of the nations (Ex. 19:4-6), Israel had become the exact opposite, a landless, roving band who profaned God’s name and gave his reputation a black eye wherever they went. 

The New Testament authors show how God “had concern for [His] holy name” (Ezek. 36:21) and acted to save us in Christ (1 Pet. 1:18-202:24-25) by calling us with a “holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9). In this act of salvation God turns the tables in his (and our) favor. In Christ, we are saved from forever profaning God’s holy name and liberated to proclaim his holy name to the world abroad.

As Peter says, Christians “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10)

This holy calling in Christ makes living a holy life reflective of our holy God possible (1 Pet. 1:15-16). In Christ, we are taught to distinguish between the holy and the profane, proclaiming his excellencies in words and deeds that are befitting a royal priesthood and a holy nation. And others should be able to tell the difference. In fact, Peter expects others to see the difference in the life of a Christian and ask about it (1 Pet. 3:15). No one should ever say of a Christian, “These are the people of the Lord, and yet… they don’t look any different than anyone else.” To wear God’s holy name and be viewed as common by others is to profane God’s holy name. Ironically, this kind of religious hypocrisy is one of the most commonly lodged complaints against Christians today and one the most vehemently denounced sins by Christ himself (Mt. 7:1ff).

The more unique we are to our neighbors, the clearer we are reflecting God’s holy image. So dare to be different. "Do not be like them" (Mt. 6:8), "go out from their midst, and be separate from them" (2 Cor. 6:17). Be the salt of the earth and the light of the world bringing glory to God (Mt. 5:13-16). This is the challenge for Christians - to live in the world but be distinct from it. 

Prayers God Won't Answer

Saturday, September 26, 2020

"Unanswered Prayers" is a song co-written and recorded by American country music artist Garth Brooks which hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in 1991. It goes like this:

Just the other night a hometown football game

My wife and I ran into my old high school flame

And as I introduced them the past came back to me

And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be

She was the one that I'd wanted for all time

And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine

And if he'd only grant me this wish I wished back then

I'd never ask for anything again

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers

Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs

That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care

Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers

While I can appreciate the sentiment of the song, Garth is a better musician than he is a theologian. The apostle John teaches us that Christians have the assurance of answered prayer (1 Jn. 5:14-15; cf. Jas. 5:16b) although it comes with certain limitations (1 Jn.5:16-17). Jesus assures all children of God that their heavenly Father will answer their prayers (Mt. 7:7-11) if asked in his “name” or according to his will (Jn. 14:13-1415:16, etc.).

What looks to us like “unanswered prayer” may be God saying, “No” (2 Cor. 12:8-9) to teach us to lean upon his grace more dependently. It may be God saying, “Wait” (Psa. 40:1ffJas. 5:7) to teach us the value of faithful patience. Or he may be providing a different solution than the specific one we prayer for.

But there are some prayers God will not answer.

  • God will not answer prayers of doubt. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (Jas. 1:5-8
  • God will not answer prayers with impure motives. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Jas. 4:3)
  • God will not answer prayers of selfishness. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 Jn. 5:14; cf. Mt. 6:9-1026:39Isa. 37:16-20, etc.)
  • God will not answer prayers of a spiritual hypocrite. “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Pet. 3:7; cf. Isa. 58)

Some prayers do go “unanswered” because prayer is conditional. Even the prayers of Cornelius, though he had not yet obeyed the gospel, were heard by God (Acts 10:1-2) because his heart was purely seeking God’s will (Mt. 7:7). Does God hear you when you pray?

Faith Clarified by Contrast

Saturday, September 19, 2020

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”

(Romans 4:4-5)

Writers use contrast by laying two things side by side to emphasize their differences to make a point. Biblical authors used contrast all the time; light and darkness (1 Jn. 1:5-10), hope and despair (Eph. 2:1-10), or Paul’s contrast in the book of Romans of faith and works (Rom. 4:4-17).

The only way to be in good standing (“justified” or “righteous”) with God is through, what Paul calls, “faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22). It is impossible for us to justify ourselves, especially with our poor track record. Paul outlines that all have sinned (Rom. 1-3) and are deserving of death (Rom. 6:23). But through the gospel our gracious God has opened up a way for sinners to come to Him and receive forgiveness through the atoning work of Jesus’ death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26). 

By trusting in and responding humbly and obediently to Jesus’ self-sacrifice (“faith”) we can stand before God justified. This, in a nutshell, is the good news. God is not treating us as we deserve but treating us according to His mercy and grace (Psa. 103:10). He can forgive us and maintain His just nature because Jesus paid for our sin when He died on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).

Paul’s contrast between faith and works shows how absurd it is to imagine we could ever be justified apart from God’s grace. 

In Romans 4:4, he says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” That is, if we were to live in such a way that we deserved to be called “just” or “righteous” then the reward of eternal life would be a matter of debt rather than a matter of grace. If we “worked” for eternal life then God would be obligated to pay us. 

Paul spent three chapters pointing out that no one, with the exception of Jesus, has ever lived a life deserving of such a reward (Rom. 3:19-20). Therefore, if any sinner is to be in good standing with God it will not be on the basis his “works”. He will not achieve good standing with God through a system of works but through a new system of grace, accessible only by faith.

Furthermore, if righteousness (“justification” or good standing with God) is rewarded on the basis of works which we have done, then grace has nothing to do with it (Rom. 4:165). Works would rule out grace, the two being incompatible (Rom. 11:6). If God’s blessing is of grace, it cannot be of works. If it is of works, it cannot be of grace.

But does this mean we don’t do anything to receive God’s grace? What about baptism? Is it considered “work” in the context of Romans 4? If we are baptized to be saved from our sins are we attempting to be “justified by works”? Let’s find out.

The blessing of God (Rom. 4:9) is His forgiveness of our sin (Rom. 4:7-8) or, what Paul calls, being counted “righteous” by God (Rom. 4:3-6). In this context, we can use “blessing,” “forgiveness,” or being counted “righteous” interchangeably. 

The person who is justified by works doesn’t need the blessing of God (forgiveness and righteousness) because he has already achieved good standing with God on the basis of his own conduct. This is what it means to be justified by works. Again, with the exception of Jesus, no one has ever done this!

Back to baptism. Were you baptized because you were already righteous and you were trying to maintain your personal righteousness apart from God’s grace? Absolutely not! You were baptized to obtain righteousness, forgiveness and life from God. You were baptized because you realized you were not righteous on your own, that you couldn’t be justified on the basis of your works and you needed God’s gift of grace (Acts 2:38).

Justification on the basis of works is justification based on innocence. One cannot be judged guilty if he has done no wrong. If you had a flawless record of conduct then you could stand before God pure and blameless. In fact, you could proudly say, “I deserve to be in heaven with God.”

But because salvation is based on God’s grace through our faith in what He has done for us, there is no room for our boasting! (Eph. 2:8-9) We don’t deserve God’s blessing but we enjoy it because He extended His grace and we responded faithfully to it.

Faith is the condition that must be met before being justified by God and baptism falls under the umbrella of faith. Baptism is a condition of receiving God’s blessing just as David’s confession of his sins was a condition of his forgiveness in Psalm 32:1-5. This is the very Scripture Paul used to prove the point that we are all justified by faith (Rom. 4:7-8). Baptism is an act of faith in the work of God not ourselves (Col. 2:11-12Gal. 3:26-27). 

Equally important to the physical act of immersion in water is the mindset of the one being baptized. It is absolutely essential that he understands that in his baptism he is appealing to God for a good conscience and for forgiveness (1 Pet. 3:21). The basis of that appeal is in the finished work of Christ, not our own work. 

In baptism, a sinner is calling on the name of the Lord to wash away his sins by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16). Baptism is an act of faith, trust, obedience and confession unto salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). God has made this act of submission (baptism) part of coming to Him in faith and receiving His blessing. We are made righteous not on the basis of our works but on the basis of our trust in God’s work for us. Therefore, the good news from Habakkuk stands: “the just shall live by his faith”! (Hab. 2:4)

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