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Moral Discernment

Saturday, June 25, 2022

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.

(Romans 12:2)

In matters of faith, I’m an Israelite (Rom. 9:6-7), but when it comes to culture, I’m a Philistine. Take classical music for example. While I enjoy listening to it, I can’t hear the difference between Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. Sure, like most people, I know the tune of some popular Beethoven and Mozart compositions but I can’t tell you which one is which or even why they are good. My problem stems from a lack of musical knowledge. Because I lack knowledge, I have difficulty discerning between the different compositions. Had I more knowledge, I would not only become a more discerning listener but I would also enjoy the music more; increased knowledge on any subject opens up new depths of understanding and appreciation.

Paul says something similar in regard to moral discernment in Romans 12:2. There are times when the morality of a situation is plain to us. Good and evil are marked out in black and white by our conscience and we can easily discern between them. But there are other times when right and wrong are less clear. In these cases, our conscience may not be enough to go on. Another possibility is that our conscience is leading us in the wrong direction altogether. For example, Saul of Tarsus was convinced he should persecute  Christians (Acts 26:9; 1 Tim. 1:13). If our conscience isn’t always a sure bet, how can we ever be certain of discerning good from evil?

This is what the apostle addresses in this short verse. He reminds us that the “world” (1 Jn. 2:17; 5:19) we live in is always trying to “conform” and squeeze us into its twisted patterns of thinking and behavior so that we confuse good and evil, even exchange them (Isa. 5:20). This is the scheme of the devil whom Paul calls “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). He has been muddying the waters of morality since the beginning (Gen. 3:4-5). Christians must resist this pressure being exerted upon us by the world and instead be “transformed” by the “renewal” of our “mind.”

The goal of this mental transformation is the ability to “discern” what God’s will is, “what is good and acceptable and perfect.” That is, we do not start with our own judgment about what is good, concluding that it must be God’s will. Rather, we start with God’s will as it is revealed in the pages of Scripture and therein discover what is good. By defining moral boundaries in Scripture God has saved us from trying to work out right and wrong on our own (cf. Gen. 2:17).

This moral discernment, however, does not come to us magically. Paul says that it comes “by testing.” The verb translated here (δοκιμάζω, dokimazō) carries the sense of “test with a positive outcome,” “test so as to approve.” Therefore, we are to look into God’s will and then put it into practice. When we adopt God’s will as our own (Lk. 22:42), our minds are “renewed” and our lives are “transformed.” To the renewed mind, those ethical quagmires which were unclear before are more easily navigated. By training our minds through God’s word and putting it into practice, we can see “what is good” and are in a better position to make good moral judgments.

Within God’s will there are commands and prohibitions where God tells us what is good. There are a number of good examples to follow and bad examples to avoid. We are meant to renew our minds by looking into the biblical text and drawing reasonable conclusions and logical inferences to discover God’s will for us.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

(Micah 6:8)

Beneficial Versus Harmful “Deconstruction”

Saturday, June 18, 2022

By Gardner Hall

“Deconstruction” is a big issue in the Evangelical world as millions leave the religion of their parents to become unbelievers or at least to take on a radically different form of faith.

A beneficial form of “deconstruction” is inherent in the concept of restoration. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to “deconstruct” their false system of faith and replace it with His true system (Matt. 23:23). Hezekiah and Josiah wanted Judah to deconstruct their idolatry to follow Yahweh (2 Chron. 29,30, 34,35). However, many types of “deconstruction” are obviously harmful.

What is the difference between the beneficial and the harmful?

1. The beneficial comes from a careful study of God’s word. The harmful comes from ingesting heavy doses of worldly wisdom and faddish worldly philosophy.

2. The beneficial is motivated by a deep and sacrificial love of God. The harmful is motivated by rebellion or resentment against those who are perceived to be “too strict” or traditional.

3. The beneficial is careful to retain whatever truth may have been in the “old religion.” The harmful has a “throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater” mentality. An example – A sincere young person may discard the sarcastic, belittling style that some brethren have in dealing with those with homosexual tendencies, even as he accepts the fact that homosexuality is sinful. A harmful “deconstructionist” will try to find a way to justify homosexuality in spite of the scriptures.

4. The beneficial “deconstructionist” is careful to avoid the carnality that increasingly dominates the world. The harmful almost always rationalizes carnal practice and often makes fun of those who are careful in their dress and entertainment choices.

5. Beneficial deconstruction brings one closer to God. God’s word still reigns supreme. Although the harmful deconstructionist may claim loudly to feel closer to God, the truth of the matter is that he is increasingly distant from Biblical principles. Feelings triumph over the Word.

Sometimes traditional brethren criticize those who are beneficially “deconstructing” harmful human traditions to “reconstruct” themselves closer to God’s pattern. However, beneficial deconstructionists aren’t the enemy. We need to be careful to distinguish between them and those who are harmful.

A Concise Worldview

Saturday, May 21, 2022

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Acts 17:22-23

Up to Acts chapter 17, the gospel has confronted zealous Jews in synagogues and the economic and political forces of the Roman empire. But in Athens, the intellectual center of the ancient world, the good news clashes with the strange world of ancient philosophy. After gaining the attention of the philosophers, Paul was given audience to address them publicly at the Areopagus. Paul brilliantly and persuasively uses the insights of the philosophers (even quoting them!) in service to his message of truth. He presents all the hallmarks of a solid worldview: the identity of God, the nature of human beings, the meaning of life and where life is headed.

Who is God? — “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything… 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.” (Acts 17:24-25, 29b) God is the Lord of the universe, a non-contingent being who gives life to all creation.

What are human beings? — “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place…for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’…” (Acts 17:26, 28a) Humans are part of God’s creation. As his “offspring,” we need God, not the other way around. God displays his sovereignty over humanity and his goodness toward us by providing for all our needs.

What is our purpose? — God placed humans on the earth “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27) The point of human existence is to seek and find God. This is the noblest pursuit. Humans have tried to do this through devising complex systems of religion and various rituals involving temples and sacrifices but they are merely blundering around in the dark. God desires to be found by humans and remains within our reach but he cannot be found unless he is sought on his terms.

Where are we going? — “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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 17:30-31) Because God is Creator and Lord of the world he is also Judge to whom all creation answers. Bound up with God’s power is his ability to control and direct history, which he is moving toward resurrection and judgment. God has ended the era of ignorance by sending Jesus to the cross and raising him from the dead. What previously could not be known about God has been revealed through Jesus. This resurrection is the evidence that judgment is coming. If God is going to set the world right then everyone must get ready by repenting and preparing for that judgment.

All the elements of a solid and concise worldview are present in Paul’s sermon; God is the Lord of creation who made human beings to seek and find him that they might escape judgment and live with him forever. Do any other worldviews compare?

Lying and Flattery

Saturday, May 14, 2022

A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.

Proverbs 26:28

The Ten Commandments gave the core of the covenant stipulations to Israel. They outlined the kind of life God called Israel to live before him (Ex. 20:1-11) and each other (Ex. 20:12-17). Jesus summarized the essence of the law with two basic commandments: to love God and to love one’s neighbor as himself (Mt. 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10), which neatly correspond to the first four and last six commands.

To create a healthy, loving society requires honest communication, which is why Israel was commanded, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Ex. 20:16) Lying against a neighbor could lead to their being punished unjustly which would be disastrous for society and would show an utter disregard for God’s moral character (Prov. 6:16-19; 12:22; 19:5). Paul repeats this to God’s new covenant family with more balance: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (Eph. 4:25; cf. 4:15; Col. 3:9) Of course, Jesus gets to the core of communication by tying our words to our hearts (Mt. 6:33-37; 12:36-37).

Flattery is another form of deceptive speech. Even though we may think flattery a kindness, wisdom teaches that it is dishonest and “works ruin” (Prov. 26:28). “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.” (Prov. 28:23) Honest reproof is always preferable to flattery. While flattery may be pleasing for the moment, because it is insincere it can never bring the constructive help of a loving rebuke. Like an antiseptic, the truth may sting at first but heals later. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Prov. 27:6) Let us not forget that our Lord was betrayed with such a kiss (Mk. 14:43-45).

Just like lying, flattery hurts everyone involved. “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet.” (Prov. 29:5) The referent (“his feet”) is difficult to discern; the net could be spread for the one flattered or for the flatterer himself. Either way, flattery harms rather than helps. For example, when Jesus confronted the religious leadership in Jerusalem before going to the cross, “the Pharisees…plotted how to entangle him in his words.” They sent people to him saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt. 22:15-17) They prefaced their question with flattery to screen their wicked intent. But by laying their net at Jesus’ feet they only succeeded in getting tangled up in it themselves. (Mt. 22:18-22)

Gossip is the other side of flattery. Gossip involves saying behind a person’s back what you would never say to his face. Flattery is saying to a person’s face what you would never say behind his back. Paul warns us of those who cause division in God’s family. One of the red flags of a divisive person is their “smooth talk and flattery” used to “deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Rom. 16:17-18)

Whenever Paul announced the good news about Jesus he was very careful that his appeal to repent and believe did not spring from “error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but,” he writes, “just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness.” (1 Thess. 2:3-6) The aim of his charge of preaching was “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim. 1:5) Let us be genuine in our praise of others and remain loving in our criticisms. No matter what, “speak the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15)

What is a Christian?

Saturday, May 07, 2022

…And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

Acts 11:26b

The majority of people in the world today identify as Christians. But what exactly is a ‘Christian’? It is a slippery term in our culture because it means so many different things to different people. There are other words and phrases which correspond to it, such as ‘believer,’ ‘disciple,’ ‘follower of Jesus,’ ‘child of God,’ and so on, but they all share the same nebulous cultural definitions as ‘Christian.’ When pushed to define the meaning of the term some offer the postmodern response, “What the word ‘Christian’ means to me is…” and their subjective definitions run the gamut.

The solution to our problem is, of course, to allow the Bible to define its own terms. So long as we are approaching this question from the vantage point of culture, we are doomed to be tossed about by its ever-changing winds. While the world is in constant flux, and language and ethical fashions fluctuate with it, “the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet. 1:23-25; Isa. 40:6-8; Mt. 24:35).

The real question to ask is how the Bible defines a Christian. We may be surprised to learn that the word ‘Christian’ only appears three times in the Bible (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). Each appearance reveals something about its meaning.

“In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Luke records this because ‘Christian’ had become a familiar term in certain areas when he wrote the book of Acts. The suffix of the word (ιανοσ) was attached to proper nouns to give a diminutive form. As ‘Herodians’ (Mt. 22:16) were those loyal to Herod’s family, 'Christians' are loyal to ‘Christ,’ a title meaning “anointed one.” Note also that they were “called Christians.” This implies it wasn’t a title they made up for themselves but a nickname given them by the people of Antioch. Christians preferred to use other names for themselves, such as ‘disciples,’ ‘saints,’ and ‘brothers.’ Therefore, a Christian is someone who is loyal to Jesus and shows their loyalty by following him in a way that is plain for others to see.

The word ‘Christian' appears next after Paul gives his defense before king Agrippa. Agrippa responds, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28) This, in fact, is exactly what Paul was trying to do. But understanding Agrippa’s response is difficult. Was he expressing his amazement that Paul would try to convert him after such a short speech? Or was he expressing his amazement that he was, in fact, almost converted in such a short time? Either way, while he was confident of Paul’s innocence (Acts 26:32), Agrippa was not yet persuaded to become a Christian.

The last time we see the word ‘Christian’ in the New Testament is in the context of suffering innocently. The apostle Peter encourages saints to share in Christ’s sufferings “that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13). While suffering for doing wrong is just and cause for shame, “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:16), that is, in the name of Christ.

Therefore, a Christian, is not merely a title one wears to confess one’s identity. People identify as all sorts of things but saying so doesn’t make it so (Jn. 8:39). Nor is a Christian merely a believer in Christ. Those who were not willing to step out of the shadows and follow Jesus were “believers” but not Christians (Jn. 12:42).

So, what is a Christian? A Christian is a follower of Christ. A Christian’s loyalty to Christ should be plain for all to see (Acts 11:26). This requires a change in life (Acts 26:28) and a willingness to continue following him even if it means suffering for it (1 Pet. 4:16). If someone accused you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

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