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Working it out

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Philippians 2:12,13 “. . . as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

     The cook can’t eat your dinner for you.  If you want the nutrition and to be sustained by it, you have to move your hand to mouth, chew, swallow and repeat until you’ve finished.  If this makes sense about eating your own dinner then why do we balk so much about ‘working out our own salvation’.  We build churches, install comfortable pews, hire professionals to develop programs to service us and sit with arms folded magically thinking our sanctification is progressing.

     The Forerunner commentary underscores the need to co-operate with God as His Holy Spirit works in us and forms our being ever more into Christ’s likeness; “. . . The purpose of this work is not to earn salvation, but to allow God to do His creative labors in us and test us. He wants us to be prepared for His Kingdom, and at the same time, He wants us to glorify Him through the witness of our lives.”  This works a positive change in a person that others see and are often amazed at.

     When the Holy Spirit is working in us – we’ve got problems.  Deep, irritating soul grinding problems that trouble and perplex us.  There are two ways to deal with these kinds of problems – medicate them or co-operate with God’s cure which is repentance.  The world supplies a myriad of drugs that allows us to numb out to the legitimate pain that calls for a change in ourselves. Sugar, alcohol and dope are drugs of choice for some.  Work, dry stick religion and fake-spirituality provide more ‘pro-social’ drugs to numb out God’s call to change.

     Repentance is God’s cure for you and the Holy Spirit is the One who exposes the problems and administers the curative dose but only if we co-operate with His treatment.  And that’s an even bigger problem – we want to be happy but real change requires sorrow; ” . . . you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, . . . For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you.  . . . ” (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)

     Happiness is the world’s empty answer to death.  This is a nasty cheating kind of delusion so loved by the enemy of our soul because it robs you of the fruit of the Holy Spirit – notably joy (Galatians 5:22,23)!  So many live their lives dedicated to the pursuit of their own happiness only to come to the end of life impoverished and filled with regret and disappointment or spite – happiness is never enough. 

     And there’s the real difference between joy and happiness; joy fills you up and satisfies while happiness like any drug leaves you empty and wanting more.  For those rebuilding the tattered remnants of their lives, joy is clearly different from mere happiness; “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10)

     Jesus told us (and continually tells us if we listen to Him); “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21)

I blew it!

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Ephesians 4:1,2 “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

      A few days ago I got into a ‘back and forth’ argument in social media about something that in my mind isn’t central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I should have had the maturity to not respond to what I felt was an ‘attack’ on my integrity as a Christian.  In getting sucked into this useless controversy I demonstrated the very thing I was trying to defend myself against.  Like Paul, I’m perplexed; “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

     The Bible tells us; “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (Titus 3:9)  Good advice for those in  the early church and good advice now!  I’ve read this scripture so many times, yet I ‘forgot’ to heed its life giving Spirit when I really needed to.  I failed and ended up hurting long time Christian friends through my wrong headedness.   How did this happen to me?

     I got pulled into the argument because it pushed on my wounds from a very difficult experience and I experienced the pain anew.  Old unhealed wounds create hot buttons that people may push not even knowing it.  A reaction is set off that when the dust settles you ask; ‘why did I react that way?’  But it’s too late – words have been said and the power of the tongue has been unleashed;  “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” (James 3:6)

     About a year ago, I came out of the most difficult and painful period of my Christian journey.  Thankfully, today I’m in a wonderful accepting church community that is part of God’s plan for my healing.   This period was characterized by rejection, humiliation and shunning.  Through this period I bore up as best I could because the Lord required my staying put in it.  But the wounds of this experience are deep and even though I can ‘ignore’ the pain I can’t exempt myself from the effects and consequences of the spiritual wounding.  My soul hurts, my spirit was nearly broken.  But for God’s strength and protection I would have been ‘undone’.  The Lord did deliver me! Praise the Lord!
     
     God is using this experience to teach me.  One very important lesson is ‘don’t ignore pain’ – physical or emotional.  Wounds need to be bound up and tended to.  Spiritual healing comes with confession and prayer;  “. . . confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (James 5:16)  How can the injured party have sin?  Carrying anger, bitterness, and un-forgiveness are all burdens unhealed wounds create in us.  Sin breeds sin passed from offender to victim who risks becoming his hate and bitterness.  We can sin against others by letting ‘hot buttons’ control our reactions.  But carrying hurt and anger or nurturing old wounds sins against God.

God doesn’t want ‘walking wounded’.  He wants us to heal and stride forward in His glory;  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18)  The only way out of ‘blowing it’ is to repent – confess your sin, ask for forgiveness and turn back to His way.  For me this is eating a huge piece of ‘humble pie’; “Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite. The Lord lifteth up the meek . . . ” (Psalm 147:6)  Pride has a fickle effect on the mouth – it will  make the tongue wag full of overflowing self yet shut your jaws so tightly against humble pie your teeth may break. Only the conviction of the Holy Spirit can lead a man to repentance and taking his fill of humility.

     Another important lesson to be learned is; ‘Armor up!’  The devil knows our wounds – he is the author of them because he is the ‘prince of this world’.  His rage and hate is stamped upon every blow, every wound and terrible cut this broken world pours out upon us;  “Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” (Revelation 12:12)  Sadly, we risk becoming the devils ‘right hand men’ when we don’t let go of  the past and take our brokenness to God.  Yesterday’s victim is tomorrow’s offender in the making unless God heals and restores.

     Sadly, we bite scratch and hurt one another under our enemy’s influence.  How do we avoid doing the very thing that we don’t want to do?  How do we avoid hurting and being hurt?  The Bible tells us; “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:11,12)

     Only a well equipped, righteous community of Christians can stand against the devil and the evils he stirs up in us and the world.  The mark of healthy maturity in a Christian community and individual Christian is the love that Christ commanded us to have for one another; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34,35)   This love evident to all men is the Gospel Message acted out for the world to see.  This bearing with one another speaks loud and clear to all (by its presence or absence) about the authenticity of our Christian walk.  May we be worthy of our calling.

     “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” (Colossians 3:12,13)

    Come Lord Jesus!
    

How do I believe?

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Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,  not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

     When we are successful, we all like to believe we’re at where we are because we got there on our own.  There’s nothing more satisfying than basking in the notion that your a ‘self-made man’.  Who wants to walk around saying ‘God made me the man I am’.  The world much prefers the song ‘I did it my way’.  Also sometimes we give God ‘bad press’ if we boast ourselves up and claim His stamp of approval on all our ‘works’. For one thing, if you’re like me, it’s pretty obvious to neighbours, friends and family that you’re nothing special – prone to mistakes, pettiness and sometimes just plain wrong ‘headedness’. 

     At first, when I read the verse  I thought that the subject was ‘being saved’. Yet the Forerunner commentary starts with faith; “Where do we get the faith that is required for salvation? Ephesians 2:8 answers: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.’ We cannot work it up—that would be our effort (Isaiah 64:6).”  Salvation is a gift from God because it is His work and His alone done for our behalf (John 3:16)  And the faith to believe is also a gift from God.

     Even the desire for the gift is a ‘gift’ from God.  Usually my desire for any gift is based on one of two motivations; it will make me feel good about myself or I need the gift.  So either I’ve accepted salvation because it makes me feel good about myself or I realize that I really need to be ‘saved’.  The former appeals to my pride and self-righteousness and the latter appeals to nothing in me that want’s to feel good  Who wants to admit they’re a wretched person, so broken they’re in desperate need.

     What do we do with this gift from God?  Even though I have never refused a gift, that would be too impolite, I have accepted  gifts and then put them away in a closet never to bother with them.  Haven’t we all done this with gifts not to our taste or liking?  Perish the thought that we would treat God’s gift that casually!  Faith to believe is a gift we must accept and practice daily especially in the tough times.  Our salvation and maturation as Christians depend upon this faith.  Like the father whose child was suffering terribly; “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

     Salvation can be a gift you politely accept and then put in a closet because it doesn’t really ‘suit you’.  Without the faith to believe it, you just listen politely and say ‘thanks’.  You can also ‘re-gift’ it!  Re-gifting makes you look really good and it doesn’t cost you anything – you got the gift for free and you think you don’t need it  so pass it on to someone else instead.  Maybe they’ll like it or use it.  Jesus warns us about this;  “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 5:15)  It’s your gift, His light shinning in you and for the benefit of others as well as yourself.  Trying to give it away without accepting it yourself is an empty self motivated kind of generosity.  Sadly, this kind of ‘evangelism’ has become all too common today.

     Salvation was a gift I really needed.  Salvation is a gift I really need.  I have been very successful in life so the world certainly didn’t put that idea in my head.  Oh I’ve had troubles and difficulties but I can blame others for those.  So where on earth would I get that idea?   The Bible tells me I’m in need of salvation – that sin has sickened my life and blighted a lot of it; “. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)  Even me!  How did I come to believe this scripture and the many others that point to the failure of ‘doing it my way’?

     The Forerunner commentary says; “Consider when God first started working with us. One year we were clueless, the next year things were making sense. We read the Bible and understood it, but more importantly, we believed it. Where did that belief come from? It was, as Ephesians 2:8 says, a gift from God. The real miracle is not that we understood, but rather that we now believed those words we understood. And this happened only because God made it possible.”  God’s Word tells us what is wrong and God’s plan of Salvation.  God’s grace gives us the faith to be convinced that we need it and God can do it.  When you’re beaten down and desperate with nothing to save you or help your situation you call out to God!  You need His grace with no bargaining or strings attached.

     That grace when it comes and it always comes because it’s always there, changes a man.  Faith does nothing for my ego and everything for my spirit;  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6,7)  You start living your faith; “To complete our faith, are we willing to believe and do whatever God tells us? Consider those first experiences as we began to believe. We faced family pressure, work pressure, peer pressure, etc., to obey what we now believed. What evidence did we have to back up our actions? All we had were God’s words.” (Forerunner Commentary)

     You can read the Bible like a history and philosophy book and walk away edified in the mind but unchanged in your heart.   You can even practice the Golden Rule – ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – as a good policy for keeping the peace and earning a good reputation and not believe that Scripture is divinely inspired – right from God’s mouth. 

     Inevitably you run into a neighbour that you feel doesn’t merit the application of the Golden rule. Since you believe it is a good practice but  not really out of  God’s mouth, you decide it doesn’t apply to your ‘nasty’ neighbour.  He or she becomes the ‘exception’ to the rule.  Soon you develop criteria and categories for your neighbours – after all – ‘Do not judge’ is a good practice but not divinely inspired as God’s Word for you always.  You do good for ‘goods’ sake when the situation merits it – not for God’s sake because you believe He saved you.  The world teaches us that looking good is a statistical approach to behaviour – Do good most of the time and you are good because you look good!  Self love and pride are intimate forces that work in us on a daily basis.  We can be thankful other ‘forces’ are at work as well.

     Jesus tells us; “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”  This kind of attraction is like Newton’s law of gravity – which is universal. All men are under it’s influence.  Indeed all of the universe is under gravity’s influence and all of the universe is under Jesus’ influence;  “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16,17)   Jesus is the greatest of all.  All men are drawn to Him because they feel His pull on them.

     God has placed in every person’s heart an inclination to believe.   This ‘grace which comes before’ is a spiritual and universal influence.   As with gravity, men can work against God’s grace, even defy it by clever or brutish means.  As with gravity, men can be drawn away to follow lesser lights like the moon pulls the tides across the earth. But it is the sun that keeps the planet on course.  As with gravity, men can foolishly reject His lawful hold upon them and fall to their spiritual death.  If that can happen to an angel it certainly happens to men.

     Eventually, all must come to rest according to our response to this grace that God pours out on all.  The Bible tells us; “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10,11)

     The Apostle Paul tells us; “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)  I will surely need God’s love and forgiveness then because for me life is a struggle.  I surely need God’s new covenant; “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:10,11,12)

     Let our daily prayer be; ‘Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!!!’

     Praise the Lord!

Holiness – a journey to happiness?!

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Is holiness possible on our own?  Is holiness a matter of character.  Is any human character inclined to goodness?  Diane Leclerc writes;

The truly virtuous character knows the good and does the good for the sake of virtue itself; not out of the internal pressure of guilt, nor the external pressure of a fear of punishment, or even a promise of reward.  The virtuous person acts in complete harmony with the knowledge he or she possesses, out of an internal desire for good, for good’s sake. . . . How sad that so many in our tradition, who suffered under a more legalistic model of holiness, missed the true happiness that comes from living a truly holy life described here as the virtuous character.

(“Being Whole”  in Spiritual Formation, p 55-56)

This sounds so nice, I wish I believed it. I’m in my seventh decade of life and sadly my character hasn’t evolved into this state.   If a decent upbringing, a good education, followed by a responsible and fulfilling career and many years in church would make you virtuous then I should be virtuous and good.  I’m just not.

The Bible tells us; “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”  (Jeremiah 17:9)  Can a heart with effort, practice and good influences be trained to become good. The Bible tells us about a rich young ruler who approached Jesus asking; “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) Jesus replied; “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” (v. 18)  The young ruler didn’t have a virtuous character because he didn’t want to leave his wealth and follow Jesus;  “You know the commandments, Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.” (v. 19-22)  The rich young ruler lived properly and acted good but only looked virtuous.

Jesus tells us a lot more in this parable.  We can often equate doing good with being good.  Jesus doesn’t.  He quickly set us and the rich young ruler straight on what human character is all about – ‘No one is good except God alone’!  The Bible is very clear on this point.   Paul tells us; “Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.'” (Romans 3:9-12)  Consistent acts of goodness, like the rich young ruler don’t make you good or virtuous.  Although for guys like me and the rich young ruler,  looking good can make us very self-righteous in thought, word and deed; “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit” (Romans 3:13)

Can there be happiness based on habitual goodness?  Does a humanistic virtue light the way to fulfilment and happiness?  Some think so; “So, understanding or knowledge is balance with sustained and consistent action (ethical virtue).  This is the truly ‘happy’ person.” (Diane Leclerc, “Being Whole”, Spiritual Formation p.56) The rich young ruler didn’t find fulfilment or happiness in his habitual goodness (Mark 10:22).  John Wesley wrote; “In using all means, seek God alone. In and through every outward thing, look only to the power of His Spirit, and the merits of His Son. Beware you do not get stuck in the work itself; if you do, it is all lost labor. Nothing short of God can satisfy your soul. Therefore, fix on Him in all, through all, and above all…Remember also to use all means as means-as ordained, not for their own sake..” (How to Pray)   Diane Leclerc argues that;  “Wesley equated this kind of happiness with holiness! Wesley’s work shows deep indebtedness to this Aristotelian ethical paradigm.” (Ibid p.56).  I don’t believe John Wesley equated the happiness of consistent ethical virtue  with holiness.  For Wesley these things were ‘means’ not to be used for their own sake and couldn’t satisfy or bring happiness. Only God could do that.

John Wesley wrote; “You cannot find your long-sought happiness in all the pleasures of the world. Are they not ‘deceitful upon the weights’ Are they not lighter than vanity itself? How long will ye ‘feed upon that which is not bread?’  — which may amuse, but cannot satisfy? You cannot find it in the religion of the world; either in opinions or a mere round of outward duties. Vain labour! Is not God a spirit, and therefore to be ‘worshipped in spirit and in truth?’ In this alone can you find the happiness you seek; in the union of your spirit with the Father of spirits; in the knowledge and love of Him who is the fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.” (Spiritual Worship, Sermon 77)  Consistent ethical action has the tendency like all human works to become ‘a mere round of outward duties’.

John Wesley would not have considered Aristotle happy; “. . . this happy knowledge of the true God is only another name for religion; I mean Christian religion; which, indeed, is the only one that deserves the name. Religion, as to the nature or essence of it, does not lie in this or that set of notions, vulgarly called faith; nor in a round of duties, however carefully reformed from error and superstition. It does not consist in any number of outward actions. No: it properly and directly consists in the knowledge and love of God, as manifested in the Son of his love, through the eternal Spirit. And this naturally leads to every heavenly temper, and to every good word and work.” (Spiritual Worship, Sermon 77)

Aristotle didn’t believe in Jesus and so was not happy in the way John Wesley defines happiness.  So the path to Wesleyan  holiness certainly isn’t found on a road to any kind of ‘Aristotelian happiness’ by virtuous character. The Bible doesn’t support this idea nor do I think John Wesley would either.  Jesus cautioned those who sought to be His disciples to ‘count the cost’; “Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it'” (Luke 14:25-28)  What a sobering thought that takes you far from the worldly  happiness of Aristotle’s virtuous life.

Jesus told us about the blessings the road to holiness and the unworldly kind of happiness it brings; “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  (Matthew 5:10-12)  Jesus didn’t expect we would have worldly happiness as His disciples; “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Happiness for a true Christian is an acquired taste for something not of this world.

Yoke of Bondage

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Galatians 5:1 “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free,and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”

     Has anyone tried to tell you that you’re not a ‘good’ Christian because you don’t practice certain rituals or because you don’t exhibit a particular ‘spiritual gift’?  Usually this accusation is made in a very self righteous spirit that makes you feel like a second class citizen.  If you have had experiences like this you know what it feels like to have someone try to put a ‘yoke of bondage’ on you.

    The Forerunner commentary describes what a ‘yoke of bondage’ is all about; “The yoke of bondage is an approach to justification and salvation, or righteousness, that relies on a syncretism of Jewish ritualistic legalism and pagan practices (usually rites of purification), while at the same time avoiding the sacrifice of Christ. This means that what we believe and who we believe in will determine whether we will be justified. Why is this approach a yoke of bondage? It cannot free a person from the penalty of sin or from Satan. It does not provide forgiveness. It will not put one into a position to receive God’s Holy Spirit.”

     Adam Clarke’s commentary describes the context in which Paul was addressing this problem; “The liberty mentioned by the apostle is freedom from Jewish rites and ceremonies, called properly here the yoke of bondage; and also liberty from the power and guilt of sin, which nothing but the grace of Christ can take away.”  If you’re wearing a ‘yoke of bondage’ you will be feeling guilty and worthless.   Guilt and condemnation have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Those that place such yokes upon people are slave traders and thieves of freedom.

     The Bible tells us; “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1)  The Spirit brings freedom; “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:7)  The slave traders of this world will always try to tell you that you’re not worthy because you don’t behave the way they like or don’t dance properly when you worship or you need to practice Old Testament observances.  These fakes may mention the Gospel but only in passing and only to steal some legitimacy for their outrageous lying claims.


     Jesus nailed these lying hypocrites; “. . . for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see . . . ” (Matthew 23:3,4,5)  Have nothing to do with fakes.  When the Holy Spirit opens your eyes to them – avoid being drawn in by them and ignore their fake preaching.

     Listen to Jesus; “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light . . . ” (Matthew 11:28-30)

     Praise the Lord!

    

Being born again! Or not!

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Spiritual formation has a beginning.  For Christians the process of spiritual formation begins as a work of grace.  Jesus tells us;  “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God,’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.”  (John 6:44,45)  Mark Maddix (Spiritual Formation, p. 11) writes; “Every discussion of Christian Spirituality presupposes divine activity in the form of grace.  For Wesleyan theologians ‘prevenient grace’ . . . provides a theological explanation of this cultural phenomenon of the pursuit of higher meaning.  Prevenient grace is the grace that God gives to every person, the grace that draws a person into a relationship with God if he or she responds to it.”

Every person who longs for meaning in their life – who longs to love and be loved by something beyond their own self-will have an encounter with Jesus.  And depending upon their response they will begin a relationship with God that will deepen and grow over time.  Jesus describes the beginning of this relationship as being ‘born again’; “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-6)

Like Nicodemus we can ask – ‘How can this be?’ (John 3:9)  How does it work?  What is the mystery of being born again?  Jesus tells us that it is a mystery and  beyond us like the wind blowing where it pleases.  Jesus continues to say to Nicodemus that our spiritual birth is brought about by faith – our response to His testimony about Himself and His death and resurrection on the cross; “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:11-15)

Mark Maddix (Ibid) points out that; “. . ., [the] heightened search for spirituality in society today should not be seen as dangerous or threatening but as the wooing of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, hearts are already awakening and stand in need of the proclamation of the truth of Jesus Christ and the way to salvation.”  This is true provided this searching spiritual desire in people is drawn to the truth of Jesus Christ in His Word.  It is out of this interchange between belief in Jesus’ testimony and the Holy Spirit that spiritual birth is conceived.  Without it there is no birth, no being ‘born again’.  A person remains flesh – yet as subject to spiritual forces as to physical forces such as gravity.  Some are doomed to operate spiritually like a golem,  serving their own flesh and the anti-Christ; “For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things . . . ” (Philippians 3:18,19)

What stops the process of being ‘born again’?  Unbelief;  “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:4)  We should never be confused on this point.  Religion, ritual and tradition are not substitutes for the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.  Jesus nailed the Pharisees of His day on this very point; “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:6-8)  The religions of this world even those masquerading as Christianity are full of golems pantomiming a sick parody of carnal  and fake ‘spirituality’.

What is the mark of a person ‘born again’?  How do we know if a spiritual birth is viable and not a ‘still birth’?  Most importantly what is the test for ourselves when we look in the mirror?  Paul urged the Corinthians to put themselves to the test; “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”  (2 Corinthians 13:5) And what was this test? Paul tells us; “Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong—not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” (2 Corinthians 13:7,8)  Does your life uphold the Gospel? Or as some like to say – If Christianity was a crime would there be enough evidence to convict you?  Do you stand up for God’s Word and the entire testimony of Jesus Christ?  Or do you just fit in and get along?

Mark Maddix  (Ibid p. 12) tells  us that after being born again a process of transformation occurs; “It is a process that happens to everyone if he or she keeps in step with the Spirit.  The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons can be spiritually formed after their new birth.  Spiritual formation is about pilgrims on a pilgrimage, Christians on a journey to become more like Jesus.”   The best a person can do in this process is the only thing a person can do – co-operate with the Holy Spirit.  Turn your eyes toward Jesus; “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)  Let go of your own agendas and prejudices; “. . . just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12,13)

Finally, how then do we do this ‘letting go’ of self.  The first cry of a new-born babe in Christ is the cry of repentance.  What does a baby have to regret and repent of.  Are they not innocent?  The Bible tells us; “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.…”  (Psalm 51:5,6) A baby’s spirit knows this because of the Holy Spirit’s work in him or her.  The first tentative spiritual movements often halting and clumsy are those of sorrow over our short comings; “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication!” (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)  Here we see repentance – Godly sorrow  and its fake imitation – worldy sorrow.  The former is about God that latter is about self.  Letting go is the outworking of Godly sorrow as the Holy Spirit works in us.

Repentance isn’t a one time event – it happens many times as we mature and let go of more and more.   Repentance is practiced as the Holy Spirit show us more and more about ourselves.  Golems don’t repent, they don’t change and they don’t mature.  Mark Maddix says; “The journey of spiritual formation  aims at growth in grace toward Christian maturity” (Ibid. p. 13)  The Bible tells us; “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”(1 Corinthians 13:11,12) 

Out of our hearts!

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Luke 6:45 “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”

Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational pastor in the 1700’s wrote; “True religion is a powerful thing.  The power of it appears, first, in the inward exercises of the heart (which is the seat of all religion).  Therefore, true religion is called ‘the power of godliness,’ in contrast to the external appearances of it,  . . . The Spirit of God is a spirit of powerful holy affection in the lives of those who have a sound and solid religion.  This is why it is written that God has given his people the spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7).” (quoted in “Engagement of the Heart”, Devotional Classics, Foster and Smith eds. p. 20)

I have been wondering why we see so much lukewarm Christianity today.  Why do we see so many celebrity clerics pandering to the masses in mega churches saying and standing by the most outrageous pronouncements.  For example, Victoria Osteen statement to the Lakewood Church congregation in Houston Texas;

I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen? (The congregation applauds.)  (Victoria Osteen quoted in Crosswalk.com by Alex Crain, the editor of Christianity.com )

The congregation applauds!  I can understand how a person can say something stupid – I’ve done it many times.  What is hard to grapple with is how a large group of supposed Christians could actually applaud!   What were they thinking.  We can be pretty sure poor Ms. Osteen’s brain was in neutral while her mouth was in high gear.  Are there no elders in Lakewood Church?

The Bible tells us: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3)  And it is on this point that I wish to stress that false teachers would not abound were it not for the desire of many to hear their unholy doctrine!  A healthy congregation with elders strong in the Word of God with a love for holiness would not allow such statements to go unchecked.

Was there no one to lovingly confront Ms. Osteen’s gaffe?  It is true that Ms. Osteen is unrepentant; “While I admit that I could have been more articulate in my remarks, I stand by my point that when we worship God and are obedient to Him we will be better for it,” she said. “I did not mean to imply that we don’t worship God; that’s ridiculous, and only the critics and cynics are interpreting my remarks that way.”  Backpedalling isn’t repentance.  A point that is often missed is why was there no call for her repentance from the Lakewood congregation?

Daniel Wallace a Bible professor and author didn’t miss the significance of Lakewood’s applause: “One has to wonder how a mega church in the buckle of the Bible belt can go on and on without the congregants waking up and smelling what’s being shoveled in their direction. If Lakewood Church is any indication of the biblical literacy, genuine devotion to Christ, and fellowship of the saints of the American evangelical church, we are in serious trouble.”  We can bash Ms. Osteen all we like and maybe feel superior for it but the fact remains there is something very lacking in our North American brand of Christianity.

Lets look back several centuries and consider Jonathan Edwards analysis of human nature and religion;

The nature of human beings is to be inactive unless influenced by some affection: love or hatred, desire, hope, fear, etc.  These affections are the ‘spring of action’, the things that set us moving in our lives, that move us to engage in activities.  When we look at the world, we see that people are exceedingly busy.  It is their affections that keep them busy.  If we were to take away their affections, the world would be motionless and dead . . . .It is the affection we call covetousness that moves a person to seek worldly profits; it is the affection we call ambition that moves a person to pursue worldly glory; it is the affection we call lust that moves a person to sensual delights  Just as worldly affections are the spring of worldly actions, so the religious affections are the spring of religious actions.

(“Engagement of the Heart”, Devotional Classics, Foster and Smith eds. p. 20,21)

Obviously the affections of Victoria Osteen are not inclined to fidelity to Scripture. And it is just as obvious the people of  Lakewood Church care little for God’s Word when they applause such glaringly counter Biblical statements.  I’m assuming that the congregants of Lakewood Church all have Bibles.  I’ll even assume the bulk of them even read their Bibles occasionally.  It’s clear that few of them care enough about God’s Word to stand on it.  They would rather hear things that ‘tickle’ their ears.  In a very real way the Victoria and Joel Osteens of this world are accurate reflection of the predominant religious affection of North America.

How can this happen in places like Canada and America?  Again Pastor Edwards, a 17th Century Congregational Pastor nails it down; “There are thousands who hear the Word of God, who hear great and exceedingly important truths about themselves and their lives, and yet all they hear has no effect upon them, makes no change in the way they live.  The reason is this; they are not affected by what they hear.”  (Ibid p. 21)  Some might say that the people are tricked or have fallen under the spell of false teachers.  This may be true of a few unfortunate souls but when thousands of people who are not dependent in any material way upon the false teachers all applaud the poison there must be another reason for it.  They prefer lies and don’t have a heart for God’s Word.  Who wants to admit this.  Who wants to say that the entire system is rotting as we ‘speak’.

It has happened before;  “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children As they were increased, so they sinned against me: therefore will I change their glory into shame. They eat up the sin of my people, and they set their heart on their iniquity. And there shall be, like people, like priest: and I will punish them for their ways, and reward them their doings. For they shall eat, and not have enough: they shall commit whoredom, and shall not increase: because they have left off to take heed to the LORD.” (Hosea 4:6-10)  And as I have said the Bible tells us it will happen again (2 Timothy 4:3). It is happening right now across our continent.

We must remember God tells us how He will build His church; “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.  The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: ‘This is the covenant I will make with them after that time,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.’ Then he adds: ‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.’” (Hebrews 10:11-17)  No more seminaries,  mega churches, denominations, celebrity pastors, or doctrines – just us and God!

Come Lord Jesus!

 

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