Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Reply All #3 Preview: Discerning God's Will

This Sunday, we will tackle one of the most common questions that Christians ask as they face the future: what is God's will for my life?  What does He want me to do?  Sometimes we ask this question because we really want to please God.  But sometimes we ask this question because we are afraid and we don't know what to do.  We seem to think that if God will give us the correct path to take then everything will work out great for us - no pain, only success.  But the truth of Scripture is that God uses seasons of pain and struggle in our life to grow us in our faith.  So why would God take us out of all trials?  He has never promised to do that - only to be with us in the midst of our struggles.  So, does God have a specific will for us to follow?  Or do we just make the best decisions we can make each day?  We will tackle this tough and very practical issues this Sunday at church.  I can't wait to share what God is teaching me as I prepare.

Reply All Q&A #2: The OT and the NT

The second question in our Reply All series was, How does God in the Old Testament relate to Jesus in the New Testament?  Jacob, our student pastor, preached last Sunday, July 4th, and tackled this rather large topic.  The main point of his message was the the God does not change between testaments.  God is revealed the Old Testament to be holy, just, and gracious toward His covenant people.  God is revealed in the New Testament to be exactly the same way - full of justice, truth, and grace.  Jacob walked through the major covenants of the Old Testament on Sunday to show us that we cannot fully understand Jesus without understanding His place in progressive revelation.  This truth also works the other direction - we cannot fully understand the God of the Old Testament without studying the person of Jesus.  Hebrews 1:3 says that God has spoken in the last days in the person of His Son, revealing exactly what He is like to us in the person of Jesus.  This means that we can get a full picture of God from looking at Christ, who is God in the flesh.  Here are some of the many questions that came in on Sunday morning...

1. If Israel had obeyed and/or had learned their lessons, would Jesus still have had to come down?  did God have to go to that level because of their stubbornness?  The Bible teaches us that God had established the plan of sending His Son to redeem creation before the foundation of the world (see Ephesians 1), so we can be confident that Israel's action/inaction did not impact God's original plan.  God's original plan was to choose a people to reveal Himself to and then to send His Son through that people to reconcile the world to Himself.  That is exactly what God did.  Everything that God did with Israel in the OT was to teach us about Himself and His character and to show all of the us why we needed Christ to come.  Galatians 3 says that the law was given as a tutor to teach us our need for redemption.  We needed redemption before the Law was given, but we didn't understand that we needed redemption.  Therefore, Israel's struggle to obey is the same as my struggle to obey - we cannot keep the law because we are sinners in need of mercy.  Thank God for showing us our need so that we would turn to Christ.

2. Do the old covenants apply today or does the new covenant replace them?  This is the real debate between "covenant" theologians (who believe that the new covenant replaces the old covenants) and "dispensational" theologians (who believe that God is not done with the old covenants and will fulfill them along with the new covenant in the future).  As a church, we tend to lean toward "progressive dispensationalism" which teaches that the answer is both/and.  The new covenant replaces some facets of the old covenants in the sense that Christ fulfilled the demands of the old covenants and earned our place as recipients of the promises of God.  However, there are parts of the old covenants that have not been fully realized yet and will not be fully realized until Christ comes back again.  In other words, in his first advent, Jesus fulfilled parts of the old covenant promises - defeating sin and death - but we are waiting on his second advent before he fulfills the rest - when he will reign on the earth as the physical King of all nations.

3. When/where was the Holy Spirit introduced in the Bible?  The Holy Spirit, as on of the three co-equal persons of the eternal Trinity, has always existed.  His presence is seen throughout the OT, from Genesis 1 to key passages of the prophets.  The full revelation of his unique personhood and work were not given until the New Testament, but His presence and ministry are seen repeatedly in the Old Testament.  Jesus did the most teaching on the person of the Holy Spirit in the gospel of John (see chapters 14-17), and then the Holy Spirit started His unique ministry in the life of the church in Acts 2.

4. Should the entire OT be interpreted through the lens of Jesus?  That is, does the OT only always have meaning through the NT?  The short answer is no - the Old Testament has meaning on its own.  The Jewish community has interpretations of the OT based solely on the OT text.  However, the Christian community believes that the revelation of Jesus Christ has shown us the fullness of the meaning of the OT passages.  In other words, as we study the Old Testament, we need to look first at the micro-context - what does this passage mean in its original context?  Who was it written to originally?  What would it have meant in that time and place?  But, as Christians, we should not stop there.  We should also look at the text in its macro-context - what does this passage mean in the context of all of Scripture?  How does the whole revelation of God give more meaning to this passage?  For example, Genesis 3 talks about the seed of the woman stepping on the head of the serpent.  From reading that in its original context, we can get that a descendant of Eve is going to crush Satan.  But without the NT, we don't know who it is or how they are going to do it.  With the NT, we can see that Jesus is the seed of Eve who crushed Satan through His death and resurrection.  Thus the OT has meaning on its own, but we don't see its fullest meaning apart from Christ.

5. How can God and Jesus be the same when Jesus even refers to God as His father?  Jesus never refers to Himself as God.  Even in Revelations when the heavens are opened, God and Jesus are described differently.  This is why it is important to understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  The Bible does NOT teach that Jesus and God the Father are the same person, but that they are of the same essence.  This is why (as the question above mentions) Jesus can talk to the Father as a separate person, and this is why the three persons of the Trinity can all be present at the same moment (at Jesus' baptism) - they are unique persons.  However, Jesus is fully God.  Jesus does claim to divinity for Himself - He says that He can forgive sin (which he says only God can do) - He says that before Abraham was, "I Am," using the Divine name of Exodus for Himself.  Jesus does and says many things in the gospels that demonstrate his divinity, and the NT epistles repeatedly affirm his divinity.  So the question is wrong when it says that Jesus and the Father are the "same" - they are not the same person, but they are equally divine in their essence.  Well, then, you might say, are we saying that there are three gods?  No - the Christian doctrine of the Trinity affirms what the Bible affirms - that though the Father, Son, and Spirit exist eternally as three divine persons, their is only One God.  This is mystery, but that does not mean it is untrue.  It is what Scripture teaches and what we affirm.

Reply All Q&A #1: Christianity Among Other Religions

On Sunday, June 27th, we started a new series called Reply-All, where we are attempting to answer five questions that we received in response to the Letters series that we did in May and June.  The first sermon I preached was in response to the question, How does evangelical Christianity compare to other denominations and other religions?  In order to answer that question on the 27th, I went over the essential elements of the Christian gospel - the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and salvation by faith alone in Christ.  I then went on to describe how different denominations and religions tweak different elements of the Christian gospel.  I discussed how liberal Protestantism tweaks the Bible's teaching on the nature of man (saying we're basically good, not basically sinful), how Catholicism tweaks the Bible's teaching on the means of salvation (saying we are saved by accumulating grace through the sacraments of the church), how the cults tweak the Bible's teaching on the person and work of Jesus (saying that He was just a created being and not fully God), and how the other religions in the world tweak the Bible's teaching on the nature of God (the Trinity, etc.).  Here are answers to some of the text message we received in response to that sermon:

1. Which denominations/religions, other than our own, follow our message and teachings?  Most evangelical churches that believe in the authority of the Bible will be aligned with us on the essentials of the gospel.  We may disagree on forms of worship, ecclesiastical structure, how the gifts of the Spirit work inside the church, etc, but these are all secondary issues (what we call "open-handed" doctrines) compared to the core gospel message.

2. Is the Catholic tweaking of the gospel a question of salvation or is it a secondary issue?  Can someone be a devout Catholic and still be saved?  This is a very important issue to discuss openly and honestly.  The question is one of trust - where is their confidence?  I think people can be Catholic and be saved if their trust is in Jesus for salvation and not the church.  One of the challenges that flows from Catholic ecclesiology (that has a very high view of the authority of the church) can be that people are not encouraged to have a personal faith in Jesus as their Savior, but simply to trust in the institution of the church.  We believe that the Bible is clear that salvation does not come from membership in an institution, but through faith in the finished work of Jesus.  Most Catholics believe rightly about the person of Jesus, but also believe that their salvation is dependent on the sacraments of the church.  I think this is adding to the gospel of freedom in Christ alone and confuses people about the source of their salvation.

3. For those who have never heard the gospel message, is it for lack of faith in Jesus that they are cast out of God's presence forever?  Is there any hope for them?  People are not cast into hell because they have never heard of Jesus.  People go to hell because they are sinners who have rebelled against a holy God and turned to their own idols to save them (see Romans 1).  That being said, I understand the heart of this question.  We all can hope that God will save those who never hear of Jesus, that God in His wisdom and mercy has some other way to redeem those who never hear, but we can't have certainty on this position.  If you want to believe this, you have to defend this view from a position of Biblical silence.  The Bible doesn't explicitly say anywhere that God will save those who never hear the gospel.  Because of that, I cannot hold that position confidently.  I must believe and live as though the name of Jesus is the only one by which men, women, and children can be saved.

4. Which category does the Unity church fall in as far as beliefs that are not consistent with the Bible?  The Unity church tweaks the Bible's teachings on the nature of God, denying the Trinity - that God is One in essence and three in person.  Orthodox Christianity over the last 2000 years has understood the Bible to teach that God is eternally One, but that in His One Essence, He exists eternally as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To deny the Trinity, Unitarian churches tend to have low views of the Bible and thus fall into other unorthodox teachings on the nature of man and salvation.  But the original change the Unitarian church made was on the nature of God Himself.

5. Why is it impossible not to sin?  The Bible teaches that we are under the curse of sin as human beings because our original parents, Adam and Eve, rebelled against God in the garden of Eden.  The Bible tells us that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam and Eve, that our very beings are marked by the impact of original sin.  Christianity teaches that all men and women are fallen creatures, having dignity because we are made in God's image, but also being depraved because we are part of a fallen creation.  Therefore, we are born into sin, both because we are decedents of Adam and because we choose to sin on our own.

6. Are practicing Jews still covered under the Old Covenant?  The Old Covenant did not say that the Jewish people were saved by keeping the law or doing the sacrifices.  They were saved by faith in God.  The apostle makes the strongest case for this in Romans 4 when he says that the Bible is very clear that Abraham was saved by faith and not by his works.  Therefore, salvation has always been by faith, even if the Jews of the Old Testament did not know about Jesus or his work on the cross on their behalf.  That being said, today's Jews do know of Jesus and his work on their behalf.  Today, Jewish people are saved just like Gentile people - through faith in the finished work of Christ.  The Old Covenant does not provide another way to salvation - it simply pointed people to their need for Jesus Christ.  Therefore, all people around the world today need to repent and place their faith in Christ for salvation - Jew and Gentile alike.

These are tough questions - theologically and emotionally - but I want to be clear and I want to faithful to Scripture.  Please let me know if I need to clarify my answers on any of the points above....

Book Notes: Matterhorn (5/5)

Matterhorn is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read.  I've read many nonfiction books about war over the years, but this is one of the few fiction accounts I've read based on actual events.  Karl Marlantes spent thirty years writing this novel after his own experiences in the Vietnam war.  His writing is thoughtful, emotive, and clear.  The list of characters is long and the military language is unfamiliar to me, but after about 200 pages, I was enveloped into the story.  Marlantes does a brilliant job of covering the minutiae of jungle life in the war of Vietnam while also getting us inside the heads and the internal conflicts of the men who served.

As a novel, the book is fascinating because Marlantes places pages of beautiful prose right next to pages of dialogue that is full of profanity.  It took me about 100 pages to get over the fact that almost every third word in the dialogue between the soldiers is the f-word.  But later I realized that this was not only Marlantes' attempt to show us the way the Marines actually talked to each other, but is a picture of the war itself - vulgarity right next to beauty, valor, and honor.  More than any war account I've ever read, Matterhorn made me feel the conflict from the soldier's perspective - the brutality, the hate and love right next to each other, the boredom and the intensity, and mess of emotions related to the chain of command and the war itself.

In one particularly gripping section, the most "religious" character in the story shares with his friend his own internal struggles with faith in the midst of so much pointless death.  This paragraph moved my heart like few others I've ever read:

Cortell was silent for a moment.  Then he said, "Ever'one here think it easy for me.  I be this good little church boy from Mississippi with my good little church-goin' Mammy, and since I be this stupid country nigger with the big faith, I don't have no troubles.  Well, it just don't work that way."  He paused.  Jermain said nothing.  "I see my friend Williams get ate by a tiger," Cortell continued.  "I see my Broyer get his face ripped off by a mine.  What you think I do all night, sit around thankin' Sweet Jesus?  Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelujah?  You know what I do?  You know what I do?  I lose my heart."  Cortell's throat suddenly tightened, strangling his words.  "I lose my heart."  He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure.  He exhaled and went on quietly, back in control.  "I sit there and I don't see hope.  Hope gone."  Cortell was seeing his dead friends.  "The, the sky turn gray again in the east, and you know what I do?  I choose all over to keep believin'.  All along I know Jesus could maybe be just some fairy tale, and I could be just this one big fool.  I choose anyway."  He turned away from his inward images and returned to the blackness of the world around him.  "It ain't no easy thing."

This 4th of July, I'm especially thankful for the men and women who have descended into the depths of hell on earth to ensure the freedom we enjoy, knowing that their service wasn't "no easy thing."