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A Businessman's Approach to Christianity: What does it do? How does it work? What are the expected results?
John A. Sullivan III
Cover photo: Evan Sullivan
© 1997 – 2008 John A. Sullivan III
Table of Contents
The Christian Journey......................................................................................................................1 Introduction.................................................................................................................................5 The Starting Line.............................................................................................................................7 Pitching To The Human Business...............................................................................................8 You No Good, Rotten Sinner.................................................................................................8 Brother, Are You Saved?.......................................................................................................8 To Be a Christian Is To Be Christ-like...................................................................................9 Relevant Christianity?.................................................................................................................9 The Business Plan.......................................................................................................................9 The Positives..........................................................................................................................9 The Negatives.......................................................................................................................11 The Problems........................................................................................................................11 Identification of False Presuppositions................................................................................11 The Call To Change..................................................................................................................12 We Must Change Both our Evil and our Good.........................................................................13 Is loving being a Christian?..................................................................................................14 God's Love is Different From Man's Love................................................................................15 The difference illustrated......................................................................................................16 Jesus' sacrifice points the way..............................................................................................18 Examples from the Christian life..........................................................................................20 Discouragement and the Spiritually Adolescent Christian.......................................................21 Doing the Right Things is Not Enough.....................................................................................22 God’s Good is Not Humanly Possible......................................................................................24 Eden revisited.......................................................................................................................25 Making sense of sin..............................................................................................................26 True Overcoming......................................................................................................................28 A purpose for the struggle....................................................................................................30 Love, Freedom, and Suffering..................................................................................................31 Selflessness and the Sermon on the Mount...............................................................................33 Why We Need a Savior.............................................................................................................36 Christianity without God?....................................................................................................38 Summary and Reflection...........................................................................................................40 Getting Started...............................................................................................................................42 Standing on the Shore of the Red Sea.......................................................................................43 The Holy Spirit and the Church................................................................................................44 The Holy Spirit is the Means....................................................................................................45 From Insanity to Sanity.............................................................................................................46 Christ Versus the Old Self.........................................................................................................47 The Centrality of Christ............................................................................................................51 How Does a Christian Grow?...................................................................................................54 How Christians Use God’s Spirit..............................................................................................57 Following the Holy Spirit Takes Away the Veil.......................................................................60 Page 3
Following the Spirit Produces Increase.....................................................................................61 Following Versus Quenching the Spirit....................................................................................62 The Outcome.............................................................................................................................63 Summary...................................................................................................................................64 On The Road..................................................................................................................................65 Why Do Christians Follow God?..............................................................................................66 The Example of Philemon.........................................................................................................67 Love Pleases; Obedience is Just Expected................................................................................67 Old Covenant Relationships vs. New Covenant Relationships................................................69 Love Goes Beyond What is Required.......................................................................................72 God Does Not Keep Score . . . . Thankfully!............................................................................75 Pitfalls of a Distorted Relationship With God..........................................................................76 Elijah – the responsible man who knew the right things......................................................77 Cornelius – the good man who was not good enough..........................................................78 Job – the disciplined man who did the right things..............................................................80 Our Relationship With God......................................................................................................82 Conclusion.................................................................................................................................83 Epilogue and Road Map............................................................................................................85 God does not have a problem...............................................................................................85 The full journey....................................................................................................................86 Book and Video Availability....................................................................................................88
This work is intended for two distinct audiences: the secular audience who do not consider themselves Christian, who may even cringe at the word, and the Christian audience. The dichotomy is intentional because the questions and answers it discusses pertain to both. Let me explain. I grow weary of those who lambaste the current generation, who bemoan the loss of our Christian values and the secularization of society. If I put my honesty eyeglasses on, I have to ask myself if "back then" was really so good and, correspondingly, if today is really so bad. If "back then" was so good, why did "back then" give us two world wars? And before then, wars of German and Italian unification, the Napoleonic wars, the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War, witch hunts, torture and unspeakable cruelty? In my teens and twenties, I worked with American men of the "Great Generation." They were as lustful and depraved as men today. And the good, "family" men of that generation were as good as the good, "family" men of today. The raw material of humanity has not changed all that much. If anything, the secularization of society has produced many tangible improvements: lower infant mortality, improved health care, the beginnings of international law, increased access to education and information, reduced racism, bigotry and ignorance, advancements in science and technology, improved prosperity – at least in the secular West, improved awareness and treatment of mental health issues, the spread of enlightened self-interest and win-win approaches to business, politics and negotiations. Yes, there are problems, too. All is not perfect but, if we set aside the manufactured fear mass media and politicians feed us for their own self-interest, the long term trend is positive. In a world where good seems to be growing, where most of the people I know, including "nonChristians," are good people and where secularization is producing tangible benefits, is Christianity relevant any longer? The question is crucial for both audiences. For the secular audience, this Christianity thing refuses to go away. If anything, it is becoming more aggressive. If it is no longer relevant, do we need to finally put it to rest and get on with history? The question is just as pointed for Christians. If our model of Christianity cannot honestly answer that question other than with empty words, accusations, straw men arguments, trite, superficial cliches and illogical effusion, then something is wrong with our Christianity, we are burying our heads in the sand, wasting our lives and standing in the way of progress. My world is the world of business and technology. One of its strengths is its eminent practicality. There is little time or patience for fluff. If it works, it's in and if it doesn't, it's out. What happens if we look at Christianity as a business proposal for the human business? My intent for this book is to examine Christianity in just such a way. What is it supposed to do? How does it work? What are the expected outcomes? Those are the questions I ask when evaluating any business plan. I should be able to get the same clear answers about Christianity – something to either cut through the fluff or at least tie it all together into a cohesive whole that makes sense.
In this way, non-Christians may gain an understanding of Christianity without wading through what may be foreign or offensive to them, and Christians may gain fresh and unencumbered insight into the Christian phenomenon. As such, this work does not approach Christianity from a traditional Christian perspective. It takes a much more pragmatic approach – the approach I would take in evaluating a business proposal – hence "A Businessman's Approach to Christianity." My sincere hope is that this practical approach will help Christians and non-Christians alike better understand the Christian Journey. It is intended to be neither dogmatic nor authoritative. I am not a teacher or a scholar – just a weak and foolish man who asks lots of questions and dislikes illogical and superficial answers. It is a sharing of my struggles for over thirty years to sort through all the nonsense I've been told and make sense of a crazy world.
The Starting Line
What Christianity Changes
Pitching To The Human Business
As mentioned in the Introduction, this work is targeted toward two audiences. First, I would like to address the secular audience who see an increasingly aggressive Christianity making its presence felt in no uncertain terms. How does an outsider to Christianity cut through the millennia of culture and countless opinions that encrust it in order to engage it and assess its relevance today? As a practically minded business person with a background in scientific analysis, I hit a wall when I tried to understand Christianity. I could find plenty of people who wanted to tell me what to think, what to do, what to eat, what to wear, what music to listen to, what music not to listen to, and especially where to send my money but I found painfully few who could tell me just what Christianity is. If we were to consider our human experience as a business, Christianity is having a hard time pitching its proposal to improve the human business. Most of the pitch styles don't work for me or others like me.
You No Good, Rotten Sinner
It does no good to beat me over the head and say, "John, you're a no good, rotten sinner and must repent." Am I? What's wrong with me? I may have a few shortcomings here or there but I'm not a mass murderer. I'm not even a single murderer! I don't steal cars. I don't rob banks. I'm faithful to my wife. I love my kids. I pay my taxes . . . well . . . maybe a little begrudgingly. But I don't see myself as a great sinner so why do I need what you are proposing? When I look at myself, I don't see an evil person so I don't see the need for your business proposal of Christianity. It is the same when I look at the people around me. I don't know lots of ax murderers. Most people I know are good people. They don't steal cars. They love their wives and their kids. They pay their taxes begrudgingly. I do not see how your plan is relevant to them either. Maybe it pertains to car thieves and ax murderers but not to us.
Brother, Are You Saved?
Then there are those who try the more positive pitch. "Brother, are you saved?" Well . . . saved from what? Again, what's the problem with me that I need to be saved? What are you saving me from? What are you saving me to and just how are you proposing to save me? This is not to demean or disrespect the enthusiasm and zeal of people who take this approach but it doesn't work for people like me. All it makes me want to do is walk fast and avoid eye contact! It still is not meaningful to me. It makes Christianity an annoyance I try to push off to the side because it has no relevance in my life.
To Be a Christian Is To Be Christlike
Hmm . . . now this is a little more substantial but what do you mean, Christ-like? If you tell me it means Christianity makes me a kinder, more loving person, well . . . I don't see myself as a cruel, unloving person. I seem to be doing all right on my own. Why do I need your Christ? Do we see the recurring theme? Maybe it was different in ages past but, I look around me and most of the people I know are not evil people. I don't see myself as an evil person in need of salvation. In a world where most people I know are good people, why do I need Christianity? Why should I consider the Christian business proposal? It has yet to make itself relevant to my life.
The second audience are Christians who, perhaps, have had lots of people willing to tell them what to do, what to think, what to believe, how to act and where to send their money but have not had a real explanation of just what Christianity is. What exactly are we doing as Christians? What is it all about? What is the glue that ties together all we are being told to do, think and believe? This is especially important when we hit those moments of dryness – when the enthusiasm wanes, when it feels like we have stopped growing and overcoming and we think, "What is it all about?" "Where is my life going?" How do we work with the process instead of simply hoping we get there at the end? The issue is the same. Christianity needs to be made relevant. If we cannot define Christianity to others, it is likely we do not understand it ourselves. Our business plan needs to clearly delineate where we are, where we are going and how we get there. Just what is the problem with our human business?
The Business Plan
Let's now examine the business proposal Christianity is making for the human business. Like any business proposal, I want to know why I need it. What is the problem with where I am? Where are you trying to take me and why is that better than where I am now? After you have articulated where I am, why it is a problem and where you propose to take me, I want to know how you plan to take the business from where we are to where we need to be. Whenever I am working on a business turn-around, the most difficult piece is the painful assessment of where we are. It requires brutal honesty. Why is my business dysfunctional or sub-optimal? Asking what is wrong with the business implies asking what is wrong with me. It can become a little personal especially if I am in a management role. What are we doing wrong or at least not as well as we could be that prevents our business from being as good as it could be?
Let's begin our analysis of the current state of the human business. Unlike many presentations Page 9
we hear of the Christian business plan, the current state of the human business is not all bad. When I look out at the world, yes, there is evil, but there is also good. There is love and there is beauty. In fact, in traditional Christian thought, the world is inherently good. One can debate whether the biblical creation accounts are literal or allegorical till kingdom come (literally) but one indisputable point is that God looks out over the world He has made and observes it is "very good." There is good in the world, and love and beauty and it makes us ask, "What is so bad about the way things are?" It would be blind, stupid and foolish to deny there is good and love in the world. Moreover, traditional Christianity does not believe there is absolute evil. There is no titanic struggle between equally matched forces of good and evil vying for control of the universe. There is no doubt about who is in charge. There is only God, who is absolute good, and departure from that absolute good – a generally very positive world view. The further we depart from that absolute good, the more miserable we become. As we evaluate the long term trends of our human business, in a sense, things seem to be getting better. We need to cast aside the idea that the current generation is always going to hell and a hand basket. Such blind and bigoted complaints do not help our business analysis. Such empty rumblings remind me of a humorous story my father tells about his grandfather, my great-grandfather. That side of my family were New York harbor pilots for generations. My father remembers my great-grandfather taking my grandfather to task saying, "In my generation the ships were made of wood and the men were made of steel but nowadays the ships are made of steel and the men are made of wood." Give me a break! The more things change, the more they stay the same. This must have been somewhere in the 1920's, 30's or 40's. They were criticizing the upcoming generation back then, too. The raw material we are working with has not changed very much over our history! Blindly insulting a younger generation does not help our analysis of the human business. As we look at the long term trend, the results are surprisingly positive. Don't look at last week or last year or how things have changed since we were kids. Look over the last 500, 1000 or 2000 years. At least in the prosperous West, we no longer fear the neighboring horde will come pillage our village, kill us and carry off our children. We no longer struggle as subsistence farmers wondering if the harvest will be enough to carry us through the Winter without starvation. We no longer expect to die before forty or that many of our children will not survive to adulthood. Even in our life times, we see the reduction though not the elimination of racism and bigotry.
So what is the problem? Well . . . there are some problems. Just like it would be stupid, foolish and blind to say there is no good, love or beauty in the world, so it would be stupid, foolish and blind to deny there are some very serious problems. We no longer fear the neighboring horde will pillage our village, kill us and carry off our children. Instead, we fear our anonymous neighbor. We have extraordinary advances in medicine and psychology but have a simultaneous health care crisis. Wars and battles seem less frequent but we face the specter of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and biological terrorism and enough firepower to destroy all life from the Earth. We have unprecedented incomes with low-cost clothing and electronics but with the resurgence of slavery under the guise of off-shore manufacturing. We speak of and work for peace, love, and brotherhood but our economic, social and political choices have filled our world with oppression, poverty, terrorism, war, and disease.
Let's take our analysis a little deeper. As we continue our introspection, we see two problems emerge. One is that there IS evil. We have this inconsistent mix of good and evil. Most people do not want war, do not want crime, poverty, pain and suffering and yet we have it anyway. The second problem is that the love and good we have, although it is love and it is good, is incapable of vanquishing our evil. In all of our time on Earth, good and evil have remained coexistent. No matter what we do and how hard we try, our good does not seem good enough. It cannot rid our human business of evil. So what is the bottom line? What is the business problem Christianity proposes to solve? The problem is that our inconsistent mix of good and evil and our inadequate good, are not eternally sustainable. We are not fit for eternity. We cannot go fifty years without a major world conflict or five years without a divorce. And the problem is not just with our enemies. Among the people we love, we sow pain, alienation and hurt. Sometimes it is the ones we love the most whom we hurt the most. Sometimes we reconcile and sometimes we do not. Why is that? It doesn't make any sense but is the way things are. And if this is the way we treat those closest to us, what hope is there for those of another nation, race or creed? So the problem is the way we are! The way we are conducting our business, our human life style with its inconsistent mix of good and evil and our good which never fully overcomes our evil, is not fit for eternity. We are not living an eternally sustainable life style.
Identification of False Presuppositions
Now that we have identified the problem, what is our next step in turning around the human business? As I continue my analysis of a sub-optimal business, I look for any underlying, false presuppositions which blind me to how good things can be or how the current state can be improved. What presuppositions are preventing me from making the changes and progress I could be making?
This is the most difficult and painful part. It is hard to see through those entrenched ways of thinking and admit we have held to misperceptions. But there is where we must start and, as we examine our human business, we will discover we have made a fatal, false presupposition. This critical, false presupposition is the assumption we understand what good and love are. We do not. We do have something and we can call it good and love but it is not good enough. It has not fixed our problems. It is not eternally sustainable. It is not consistent and it has not succeeded in vanquishing our evil. We are going to see there is a difference between the love and good most of us experience in life and the absolute good and love which God has experienced within Himself in what the Christian tradition calls the Trinity. Christians understand God as one God in "substance" who exists in three "persons." Within the one substance of God, the love exchanged between the three persons has produced peace and joy for all eternity. In fact, Christian thought goes so far as to say the di-unity of marriage where two persons become one human is a reflection of the tri-unity of the Trinitarian God. God lives eternally sustainable love within the Trinity. It always was, always is and ever shall be. God is that love. It is this absolute love and good which makes us fit for eternity. This is the love and good we need in our human business. We have glimpses of this love, of this original justice, of the way God wants us to be, in our human business. It is there because God put it there. But what we see most of the time is not the eternally sustainable, absolute love and good we see in God. That is the problem. That is the problem the Christian business plan identifies. The solution it proposes is to become divine, to become that absolute good and love God has experienced within Himself for all eternity, to become capable of an eternally sustainable lifestyle, to become fit for eternity.
The Call To Change
This business proposal, this identification of the problem and the proposed solution reveals a startling implication. If we do not want business as usual, if we want the business results to change, then we must change what we do. That much is obvious. To use Christian terminology, we must repent. We must turn from one way of running our human business to a different way of running our human business. Where we jump the track and where our false presuppositions get in the way is our usual assumption that we must repent of just our evil. No, that is not the whole story and that is not the Christian business plan. The Christian business plan calls for us to change not only our evil, but our good as well. Christianity calls us to repent of BOTH our evil AND our good because the love and good we usually experience is not good enough. It is not eternally sustainable and it has a fundamental difference most of the time from the eternally sustainable and absolute good that is God. If we settle for the love and good we normally experience, we are settling for a very distant second best. The best case business scenario says it is not that what we have is so bad but rather what we could have is so much better; as long as we settle for this distant second best, the human business will not be as effective as it could be. The worst case business scenario is that this suboptimal business performance is not eternally sustainable; if we settle for this inferior good, for business as usual, at some point the current business practice will fail. If I put my risk Page 12
assessment hat on, the worst case scenario presents an unacceptable risk. Thus, to optimize our business, to break us out of business as usual and ensure our eternal survival, we need to change, i.e., repent, of both our evil and our good. We will need to spend considerable time on that statement. It is a radical departure from what we normally hear for both Christians and non-Christians. Christians do not normally hear they need to repent of their good and yet they must. Our human good has not solved the problems of the human business yet, and it is not about to any time soon. Something has got to change: both our evil and our good. When the business pitch focused on evil only while I perceived myself and most of the people I know as good, the plan was perceived as irrelevant. But that is not the Christian business proposal – just a problem with the pitch. The Christian business proposal sees what I see. It sees there is good – that I and my friends are good people. Like me, it also sees there are problems in the world and in my life despite being a generally good person. How often do we try our best, try to do what is right, try to love and still our life goes sour? And then we stand stupefied wondering what went wrong! How did we hurt the ones we love when that was the last thing on Earth we ever intended? The Christian business proposal acknowledges this mix of good and evil, our triumphs, our joys and our pain. From this perspective, the Christian view of the human business is not so different from the secular view. The difference is the proposed solution. Now that the secular and Christian views have a relatively common starting place, we can begin a constructive dialog. Now we can find relevance. So let's continue our exploration of this Christian business proposal, of the Christian Journey from where we are to where we need to be, by further examining the Christian understanding of the problem.
We Must Change Both our Evil and our Good
We can begin to see the problem more clearly by examining some very painful implications of a statement made by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. He uses the term "carnal" or "fleshly" mind to describe the unchristian mind apart from the spirit of God in his discussion of what distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian. “For the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Romans 8:7(KJV). Why not? Why can’t a good non-Christian keep the law of God? Can’t a person just decide to stop killing? Can’t a person just decide to stop committing adultery and start living a chaste life? Can’t a person choose to not covet what pertains to another? It seems the height of arrogance and a defiance of reality to say only Christians are good people. In fact, Paul’s statement seems to contradict his very own words elsewhere in scripture. He stated that before his conversion he was blameless concerning the righteousness of the Law. In Philippians 3:5-6, Paul describes his pre-Christian life as "circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless." Yet in Romans 8:7 he says the carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God.
What about modern-day orthodox Jews? They are zealous to keep the law of God and not break any of the ten commandments, yet Paul says that they are not keeping the law. What about the Pharisees of Christ’s day? Their zeal to not break the law of God was why they had built so many regulations around the law. They built these walls of extreme regulation for the very purpose that someone might transgress the traditional law but still be far away from breaking the law of God – like an outer shell of protection. Yet Paul says that they could not keep the law and Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed their righteousness (Matt 5:20). If all of these people are and were keeping the law of God, then why does Paul say humans cannot? The nature of this "enmity," the nature of repentance and Christian change can be especially confusing to those who have grown up within Christianity and conformed to Christian culture. They may have grown up as marvelously "good" people. They do not get drunk; they do not do drugs; they do not fornicate; they respect their parents; they come to church; they support the church. If they believe their adherence to this culture of Christianity is sufficient, then they have sold themselves far short of the spectacular gift of transformation God wishes to bestow upon them. But what must they change? Why must they change? The answer begins our understanding of the Christian Journey. As we explore this subject, we will continue to affirm this startling conclusion, namely, we must repent not only of our evil but of most of our good as well! The Christian Journey frequently starts with a turning away from our evil but it will never end until we also turn away from most of our good. Until we arrive at that point, we are unfit for eternity and our practice of Christianity is only one of many religions. When we do understand this principle, we also begin to see how Christianity is not a religion to which one externally conforms but rather an internal phenomenon that happens to one. We will see that, unlike external conformance to a religion, undertaking the Christian Journey is not something we humans can choose and accomplish on our own strength.
Is loving being a Christian?
Our understanding grows when we examine what God says the Law is. If we boil down all the law, we arrive at two commandments. Christ explained it in Matthew 22:36-40 "`Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And He [Jesus] said to him, `'you shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'you shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’" If we keep boiling down the law even further, we come to just one word – love. Paul described it in Romans 13:8-10 "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, `you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, `you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law." So then just physically keeping the Law is not true law keeping but rather we must have the underlying motivation of love. That only makes matters worse! Paul says that the carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God. If the law of God is not keeping the physical letter of the law but rather is love, then is Paul saying that non-Christians are incapable of love? What an absurd conclusion! Are we going to say that only Christian mothers love their babies or only Page 14
Christian men love their wives? Of course not! But then what does Paul mean? If the law is love but Paul says that the carnal mind cannot be subject to the law but yet we know that nonChristians love. . . . how do we reconcile this apparent conflict?
God's Love is Different From Man's Love
The key to understanding Paul’s statement and the key to understanding the nature of the Christian Journey is this: there is a huge difference between the love of God and the love of man. Understanding the difference shows us the way to our goal, namely our transformation from humanness to godliness. This is the Christian Journey; this is Christianity. If we understand the difference between the love of God and the love of man, we will know where our journey begins, where our journey ends and the path in between. If we do not understand, we could think we have arrived at the finish line when we have not even left the starting blocks. We will accomplish the journey whether we understand it or not; the Holy Spirit will do what the Holy Spirit does in spite of ourselves. But why should we hinder the process? If we understand what is happening, we can work with the process instead of ignorantly quenching it. But how is godly love different from human love? At its usual best, human love is still selfish; God is selfless. At the bottom of most human love is some sort of positive reinforcement. In his book entitled The Skilled Helper, Gerard Egan makes a profound observation. During a discussion of reinforcement as a principle of human behavior, he states the following: In a sense, reinforcement is the central principle of behavior....Beings that are not God by their very nature act in order to gain something when they act. There is no such thing as absolutely selfless behavior. People who are selfless find some kind of deep satisfaction in altruistic behavior even when altruism means suffering some kind of loss.1 There are innumerable selfish reasons for loving and doing good. We may love because we are really loving the self or an extension of the self. We might do good because it makes us feel better, because we believe "what goes 'round, comes 'round," to get “brownie points” with God, to achieve salvation, to receive blessings, to escape curses or tribulation, to get whatever it is that we think God is holding out to us as a reward. Perhaps it is because “God’s way works” and we feel emotionally and spiritually healthier when we live a righteous life. Maybe we help others in pain because doing so helps alleviate the pain we experience when we see their pain. The reasons go on and on and on. I cannot judge anyone’s motivation but I do know that if we are strictly human, that motivation is, not always but usually, selfish at its root. I say almost always because we were indeed created inherently good by God. "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." Gen 1:31(RSV). However, our goodness has been severely weakened and subordinated to our desires. What do I mean? We can look at it this way. Humans are both body and soul. We do not have a body; we are a body. We do not have a soul; we are a soul. Soul and body together; that makes a complete human. Our body gives us inputs and makes us aware of our needs: our need to eat, to sleep, to reproduce. Sometimes these needs and desires are not physical but emotional and psychological: our need to be loved, safe, respected, and accepted.
1 Egan, Gerard The Skilled Helper, Second Edition. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1982.
These inputs are neither evil nor good in themselves. They are merely inputs. The wellordered soul takes these inputs and then makes a decision to act or not act upon them based upon the will to love. If accepting the input is love, it is accepted. If rejecting the input is love, it is rejected. The disordered soul is either overwhelmed by these inputs and thus accepts them despite its will or makes a decision to act or not act upon them based upon the will to satisfy self. We will discuss the contrast between love and self shortly. This tendency to be overwhelmed by our biological, emotional, or psychological inputs or act upon them for selfish motives is what theology has traditionally labeled "the stain of original sin" or, more succinctly, "original sin." Perhaps it is a poor choice of words for our culture in that it makes it seem like original sin is something we have done or at least something for which we have taken the blame. It is not something we have done; it describes the way we are: inherently good but weakened by our selfishness. The soul weakened by original sin is held in slavery to our selfishness either choosing to satisfy self or being overwhelmed by self even when it wants to do otherwise. The soul in original justice, well-ordered as God is, is free from this slavery – free to love. The contrast between love and self is essential. Indeed, there are really only two ends in life: love and self and they are completely opposed. The opposite of love is not hate; it is self. Hate is just one manifestation of self just like greed, lust or selfish good. When we trace the cause of all of our actions, voluntary and involuntary, they always will end up in one of two camps; we either did it for self or we did it for love. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will come to see that 90% of what we do comes back to self (and that is being generous). Even the good and the love we think we express, if we reflect deeply enough on it, will display the ugly stain of self. From the subtle loving our children but not others' children (every terrorist, every criminal, everyone we despise is someone's child) to the explicitly selfish good of "enlightened self interest," we reek of the slavery to self of original sin. Part of the problem is our confusion over the meaning of love. We love our children; we love our dog; we love chocolate ice cream, golf and the latest popular singer. Which of these, if any, is the same as the love God expects of us and offers to us as the end result of the Christianity Journey? What exactly is the difference between God's love and human love? It is the difference between business as usual and the new business plan.
The difference illustrated
Let me illustrate with some examples. Have we ever found ourselves caught in this line of reasoning? Why was I born? To develop godly character. Why? So that God can grant me eternal life. Why? So that He can share His life. Why? Because He wants to. Why? The reason we go around and around is that we are trying to find the bottom line for God. In other words, what is God getting out of the deal? The problem is that God is not doing it to get something out of the deal. There is no bottom line for God. Of course, He is expanding His family but that is not His purpose for doing it. His motivation is the love within Him for us in spite of us, not the love that we inspire in Him. Let’s look at it another way. Imagine a romantic dinner between a husband and wife. The candlelight sparkles in the woman’s eyes brighter than the shimmering stars above. The music trembles in the background as he reaches for her hand and softly whispers, “I love you.” Her gaze melts into his and from her lips flows the simple word, “Why?” His heart almost bursts with Page 16
all the feelings and thoughts of what she means to him and he pours forth, “Because of all the things you are! You’re so kind and warm, gentle and loving. You look after our household and are a wonderful mother to our children. You comfort, inspire, and encourage me. You’re my friend and my companion. You make me feel complete. Where would I be without you?” Is this love? Yes. Is this good? Yes. Is this selfish? You bet! It is love; it is good and it is entirely selfish. This is human love, perhaps at its best, but still human love. Let’s imagine the same romantic dinner with our husband, Jesus Christ. He lovingly looks into our eyes across the table and says, “I love you,” and, in a fit of utter madness, we respond, “Why?” He would not say, “Because of all the things you are.” After all, what are we? Sinners, filthy rags, detestable, corrupt human beings whose shortcomings brought about His death by crucifixion. We have nothing to offer Him that is of any value. He would not say, “Because of all the things you are,” but rather, “I love you because of all the things I am.” God loves us not because of what we are and what we offer Him but because He IS love! “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love,” “We love, because He first loved us.” (I John 4:8,19) His love for us does not depend on us or on anything that we can offer Him. His love depends on what He is, namely, love. God does not love "because . . ." as we heard from the husband in the first dinner example. He IS love. He loves as He is love; He does not love because of what He gets or receives which then inspires love. When we love "because . . .", when the inspiration ends, when the reinforcement stops, the love stops. That is why marriages die and passionate relationships grow cold and end. When the reinforcement stops, the love stops and the relationship dies. Who can deny that this is the more common form of human love? This love, this lifestyle is not eternally sustainable. We are not fit for eternity when we love like humans. God’s love lasts forever; human love lasts until its inspiration goes away because human love is selfish. It cannot help but be selfish; it is our very nature – the consequence of original sin. Just by being in the flesh we view the world with ourselves at the center. From the time we are born, we can only see things from behind our own two eyes. We are hungry and we cry. We are wet and we cry. We are tired and we cry. Not that this is necessarily sinful but it is not the love of God. I am sure that Christ cried as a baby as part of the design of the flesh. How else would His parents know if He was wet or hungry? Even as an adult, it is arguable that Christ displayed human love inspired by others in His relationship with John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). But Jesus also walked with the love of God. God even uses our selfishness to call us! We typically respond to God’s call because we want to get something. Maybe it is eternal life, or power in the kingdom to come, or peace of mind, or escape from tribulation, or to gain blessings and escape curses, or to know truth, or to have a religious foundation for our children. Whatever it is, it is usually selfish. We want the carrot God holds in front of us. “We love, because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). This reaching for the carrot God holds out to us is an acceptable place for the Christian Journey to begin. It is typically the only place it can begin given our human selfish state. But we must not stay there. This is the beginning, not the end. If we continue to serve God for selfish reasons, we are not participating in Christianity; we are not becoming Christ-like. As long as we serve God for some sort of reward, we are in the most immature phase of Christianity. Christianity is being transformed from human selfishness to godly selflessness.
Jesus' sacrifice points the way
The difference between God’s love (true law keeping as Paul intended in Rom 8:7) and man’s love is epitomized in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is a reason why the new testament writers focus on the sacrifice of Christ as the central point of Christianity. Not only did Jesus' sacrifice provide for the forgiveness of our sins, it demonstrated God’s love for us – the kind of love He builds in Christians. For those unfamiliar with the death of Jesus, He willingly submitted to a Roman crucifixion. He was first taken captive by the temple guard who beat Him. These were not light slaps. These were professional guards venting their hatred and anger in punches and kicks. They blindfolded Him taunting Him to identify who hit Him if He was a prophet. He was then handed over to the Romans. They beat Him with rods. This alone is enough to split open the skin of one's back but they did not stop there. When the beating with rods did not satisfy the blood lust of the crowd, He was scourged. Scourges were whips of multiple straps of leather with embedded bits of metal and bone. They literally tore the flesh from the bones as they lashed into one's body only to be mercilessly ripped away. Having somehow survived the scourging, it was now the Roman soldiers' turn to beat Him as they vented their hatred for the troublesome Jews. They wove a crown of thorns to mock Him as the King of the Jews. With the thorns in place, they beat Him with rods around His head – driving the thorns even further into His traumatized skull. Lastly, they placed a heavy cross upon His exhausted, blood drained body and had Him carry it up a long hill. When they arrived at the top, they publicly stripped Him naked in total humiliation, tearing the scourging's wounds open again and then drove nails through His hands and feet – nailing a human body to a wooden cross. They raised the cross and dropped it into the ground – tearing at the nails supporting His weight. But it was not the nails that killed Him. That would be too simple and quick. No, crucifixion was intentionally a slow, torturous death. As He hung suspended by His pierced hands, unable to shew the flies feasting on His blood, hungry and cold, His lungs slowly filled with fluid. Yes, those crucified slowly suffocated in their own body fluids. This was a public death whose purposeful, ingenious barbarity instilled fear in any who would challenge the Roman dominion or economy. We have no idea of what this was like in our culture with its ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Jesus freely chose this death. He told His disciples who wanted to fight rather than see Him captured that He could simply ask and God the Father would send tens of thousands of angels to rescue Him (Matt 26:53) and He rebuked those who tried to prevent Him from dying for us (Matt 16:23). He freely chose this death as God in the flesh to pay the debt we incurred for all the cruelty, violence and selfishness we inflict upon the world in defiance of the love to which God calls us. He also chose this death to show us what God means by the word "love." God showed us the love He is and the love He expects on the cross. John makes this point crystal clear in his first epistle. “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (I John 3:16, 4:9 NASB). We will learn much about what we are to become as Christians by examining the sacrifice of Jesus.
Notice how Paul directs us toward Jesus' sacrifice in Philippians: "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Phil 2:3-8 NASB) What did Jesus Christ have to gain by coming here to die for us? He had absolutely everything. He was God. He had the entire universe and more. He owns everything (talk about the man who’s hard to buy for!). There was absolutely nothing to be gained by coming and dying for us – He already had it all. If He wanted human beings, He could have just crumpled us up and started over again with a better lot; He certainly did not have to come and suffer for our sinful version of humanity. Even though He had everything and had nothing to gain, He came, suffered, and died for us because He loves us and He loves us not for what we are (wretched sinners) but because of what He is, namely, love. That is why Paul tells us we must develop the mind of Christ. The human mind is generally incapable of this kind of good, this kind of love, except when it displays a glimmer of that original goodness. Human good is not good enough; it cannot endure eternity. Humans would largely cease to be loving in a world where we have everything. Yet God tells us that one day we will have everything: "It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.’ In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him." (Heb 2:5-8 NIV) If humans are to inherit everything and live an eternal existence, humans must change; humans must love in a different way, an eternally sustainable way. Look at how we have treated our Earth. How have we ravaged. polluted and oppressed it for our greed and selfishness. And it is not just "them." How diligent are we about recycling, about cutting down waste, reducing energy consumption? How much more are we willing to pay or how much convenience are we willing to personally sacrifice for the sake of preserving our planet for our fellow humans? If we do this to the Earth over which we only have partial power, what would we do if given absolute power over the entire universe? If we are to inherit all things for all eternity, we must change our business as usual. We must develop God's good and God's eternally sustainable, selfless love; we must develop the love of the cross. In Romans 5, Paul not only states that God’s type of love has been poured into our hearts by the miracle of the Holy Spirit but then goes on to describe that love in contrast to human love. "And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good Page 19
man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:5-8 NIV) This is the kind of love we must have as Christians – a love which we are incapable of sustaining as humans – the love of God. If we are to be truly honest with ourselves and allow the scriptures to confront us, there is one scripture we must examine that appears to portray Christ’s sacrifice in less than absolutely selfless terms. Heb 12:2: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." Did Jesus Christ die for us because He wanted to get the joy set before Him? Somehow, I do not see this joy as something selfish. Certainly it is not a masochistic joy of experiencing the horrific pain of scourging and crucifixion. Nor do I believe Christ did it for the joy of triumphing over Satan and inheriting all things. After all, He already ruled over Satan and owned all things. I believe Christ experienced the enormous joy of serving others and making possible their salvation. Was this joy of helping others Christ’s motivating factor? Was Jesus behaving as a “good” human by serving others to get the great feeling of joy that can come through helping others? Although I must allow that this one scripture permits this view, I have difficulty reconciling this interpretation with the other clear scriptures cited above, namely, Phili 2:3-8, I John 3:16, and I John 4:9. I do not believe this was a human, selfish joy or the primary motivation for Christ’s sacrifice. However, even if it is and it expresses Jesus' humanity, it does not negate the argument that God’s love is still different from human love and God’s good is still different from human good.
Examples from the Christian life
Let’s bring these cosmic principles down to earth with a very simple example from everyday life. We have just finished eating dinner and it is time for dessert. We look at the dessert plate and see that, among the pieces of pie, there is a conspicuously large piece and a conspicuously small piece. Which one does the Christian take? The answer could be either but the rationale must be one of selfless love – the same way God would choose. Perhaps we are in a cultural setting where it would be offensive to not take the largest piece. A host might be hurt that his guest did not like the dessert and indicated so by taking the smallest piece. Here a Christian might take the largest piece even if he does not like this particular type of pie. Perhaps someone with whom we are dining has a weight problem and yet could not resist taking the largest piece. It might be an act of service to take the larger piece (such sacrifices we Christians must make sometimes!). More than likely, however, the Christian thing to do would be to take the smallest piece and save the large and normal-sized pieces for others. As Christians, our life must become a life of always taking the smallest piece of pie. ALWAYS! Christians are never allowed time off from loving. Although, for sure we will fall short, the goal is to be like God in what we do all of the time. God is always living in selfless love and as such would always take the smallest piece of pie (unless it was not the selfless thing to do). Christianity is always taking the smallest piece of pie. If a life of always taking the smallest piece of pie is not what we want, then we do not want to be Christians! Page 20
Let's look at another day to day example. Why do we brush our teeth? Maybe it is simply a habit (and a good one at that). Maybe it is so we are not embarrassed by our bad breath. Maybe it is so we are ready for that "power lunch" and to climb the corporate ladder or to show off our perfection while going out among our peers. A more loving approach is to do so to make the environment more pleasant for others or to maintain our health and thus our ability to serve. In fact, there may be a time when love says to risk embarrassment by not brushing our teeth and having terrible breath because we need to tend to someone else's need immediately. The details of implementation will vary wildly. This is not a treatise on how to brush one's teeth! But the underlying principle is eternal in the most literal sense. If we are participating in Christianity for power in the world to come or reward or deliverance, then we are not mature yet; we have not really absorbed what Christianity is. Of course, that does not mean we should pack it in and give up. By all means, stick around and grow into what Christianity is but realize that, as long as our motivation to be Christians is selfish, we have not gotten to the starting line of the Christian Journey. Hopefully we are at least moving to the starting line. Do not become discouraged; just recognize where the starting line is.
Discouragement and the Spiritually Adolescent Christian
Confusing the starting line with the finish line is a major source of Christian discouragement. For many, somewhere between five and fifteen years after awakening to Christ, it suddenly seems as if we have stopped growing. For the first few years there were so many changes. We cleaned up our lives. We stopped cheating on our taxes or cheating on our mates. We stopped fornicating. We stopped lying and stealing. We began contributing to the church. We began taking time to worship God. Then, after all this dazzling progress, the changes cease. We have cleaned up our act and made a host of physical changes but now the growing has stopped. We have hit a brick wall. We become despondent and think we are in a rut – we have stopped growing as Christians. I like to refer to this stage of growth as Christian adolescence – a time of critical yet confusing change and development where we make a crucial turn toward Christian maturity. When people feel like they have hit this brick wall, I feel like saying, “Congratulations! You’ve made it to the starting line!” Let me clarify what I mean by the starting line. I do not mean we think we are Christians at first but we really are not – that we need to arrive at some elevated level of understanding before we begin the mystical Christian journey. We become Christians and begin the Christian Journey as soon as we receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does what it does in spite of ourselves. It starts changing our hearts right away. What I mean by coming to the starting line is a matter of our own perception. By coming to the starting line I mean WE finally see what the true Christian journey is. We had been on it all along but never recognized it. We first thought the Christian journey was all the physical changes we were making. When those physical changes stopped, we became discouraged by thinking our Christian journey had stalled. But the physical changes were NOT the journey; they were only signs we were on the journey. The real Christian Journey is a transformation of the heart; it is a transformation from selfishness to selflessness, from human love, good, and evil to godly love, from the human nature to the divine nature. "Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the Page 21
world caused by evil desires" (II Pet 1:4 NIV). It is a change in what we are, not in what we do. Changing what we do is just a consequence of changing what we are; it is not the real Christian growth. When Christians come to Christian adolescence, they are being forced to stop looking at the results of Christianity (the physical changes) and start focusing on what they must really do for the rest of their lives, namely, change what they are. This realization is what I call “making it to the starting line.” More traditionally, it is called coming to self-knowledge. Unfortunately, some never make the turn and give up in discouragement instead of charging forward into a most exciting phase of Christian growth. When we come through Christian adolescence, we can focus on the true work of Christ in our lives. We can work with the Holy Spirit instead of having It work in spite of ourselves. We can begin to consciously work on being what a Christian truly is – a human being transformed into the spiritual image of God.
Doing the Right Things is Not Enough
It is terribly important that we come to this understanding in our Christian lives because just doing the right thing is not enough; it is not what God wants or expects from us. Good people are just not good enough. We can see this from the example of Cornelius in the book of Acts. Cornelius was a good man – a very good man. God used him to show the early church that salvation was not limited to the Jews. Until Cornelius, if a gentile wanted to become a Christian, he became a Jew first. All the early gentile members of the Church were first proselytes to Judaism (e.g., Acts 2:10, 6:5). God’s calling of Cornelius changed all that. The first item to note is that Cornelius was a very good man: At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, ‘Cornelius!’ Cornelius stared at him in fear. ‘What is it, Lord?’ he asked. The angel answered, ‘Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.’ (Acts 10:1-4 NIV) Despite Cornelius’ good, Cornelius needed something more; he needed God’s good. The angel instructs him to send for the apostle Peter who is himself being prepared for this momentous occasion. Peter comes and begins proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ; he begins proclaiming Christianity and then a most marvelous miracle occurs: While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44-48 NIV)
Did Cornelius receive salvation because he was such a good man already? Did Cornelius already have all that was needed to receive the eternal existence God wanted to give Him? No! Even though Cornelius abounded in human good, he needed something more. It was not until Jesus Christ entered his life literally, i.e., entered his heart and mind through the Holy Spirit, that Cornelius could receive salvation. Even the good Cornelius needed to be changed in order to receive the salvation God wanted to give him. The account is clear that he had not received salvation until this point even though he was a good man. Observe how Peter recounts his encounter with Cornelius to the Christians who were criticizing him for going into a gentile home: ‘He [Cornelius] told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, 'Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.' As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?’ When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.’ (Acts 11:13-18 NIV) Note that Peter had to bring the message through which Cornelius would be saved. In fact, I hope this brings real meaning to the word "salvation." It is not just an empty, "spiritual," word. It means being saved from a lifestyle that is not eternally sustainable and being made capable of one that is eternally sustainable. Just being a "good" person is not enough because the good is generally not good enough to live in eternity. Cornelius was not already saved in spite of his goodness. Note again that, to this righteous gentile, God had granted repentance unto life. As good as Cornelius was, he still needed to repent; he still needed to change. His good was not good enough. No human good is good enough for God. That is why we must change even our good so that it is God’s good, God’s love. Why? What is wrong with our good? It is better than evil. I would much rather live next door to a good atheist than Jack the Ripper! Two things are wrong with our own human good. It is not God’s good (Rom 8:7) and it is not sustainable for eternity. When the reinforcement stops, when there is no longer a reason to do good, the good stops. As I mentioned before, it is like a marriage gone sour. When the partners cease to get out of the marriage what they want, the love grows cold and dies. This kind of love can die because it depends on an outside source. God’s love does not depend on an outside source. God loves because He IS love.
God’s Good is Not Humanly Possible
As we might expect, this kind of good is not humanly possible otherwise it would be human good. Notice Isa 25:7. This is a marvelous scripture describing a beautiful world – a world that is finally in harmony with God. "On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations". What shroud (or veil as other translations state)? What is Isaiah talking about? Paul uses similar language in II Corinthians. Here Paul is overjoyed that he is a minister of a new covenant – a covenant that is different from anything that has ever been. It is a covenant of which Moses could not speak because the Israelites were utterly incapable of participating in it. They could only operate at a human level but Christians now have something more in their lives. They no longer operate on just the human level but also on the divine level. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (II Cor 3:13-18 ) Christians can participate in the new covenant; they can reflect its glory because they have God in their lives literally living in them. They are partakers of the divine nature (II Pet 1:4) and have the love of God in their hearts (Rom 5:5) as well as human love. Other than those in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt, the Israelites could not; their hearts were veiled – veiled with the inability to comprehend and participate in the divine nature. They could only exist primarily in human good and evil, human love and hate. They could not understand or participate in godly, absolutely selfless love. Their hearts were veiled. God knew they could not really keep His law (Rom 8:7) even as he gave them a humanly understandable form of it. "Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!" (Deut 5:29 (NIV)) The New American Standard Bible is even more pointed: “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!" We almost hear God sighing at the inability of the Israelites to be like Him. He knew from the start that, without Him living in them, they could only understand human good, not godly good. But as Isaiah told us in chapter 25, it will not always be this way. The day is coming and now is when the veil can be taken away – we can comprehend and begin to live as God does, truly keeping and submitting to His law. Unlike Romans 8:7, we no longer are limited to thinking with a carnal mind; we can develop the mind of Christ. The veil can be removed and our hearts changed. "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." (Ezek 36:25-27) Page 24
The wonderful event, this transformation from human love and good to God’s good, this removal of the veil, this change of heart is the extraordinary event foretold by Jeremiah – the new covenant: ‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ‘ declares the LORD. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it 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,’ declares the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ (Jer 31:31-34)
This new covenant is God’s divine intervention in our lives to transform us from being only capable of human good to being capable of God’s good. We might say it is eating of the other tree in the garden of Eden. What is God trying to show us through the account of the two trees at the very beginning of the Bible? It is hard to say definitively but let’s consider this. What did humanity have in that proto-paradise, in the beginning of its relationship with its creator where life was innocent and child-like? We had a choice between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. It is interesting to note that the tree of life was not only distinct from evil but also from good. Humans are quite capable of good. There is love in the world. It is foolish and detrimental to deny the good in the world. But, most of the time, it is separate and distinct from God’s good and from what God may be representing in the tree of life. Compared to God’s good, it falls completely short because it is selfish, it is not eternally sustainable, it does not overcome our evil and it is not God’s good. 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.’ ‘Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.’ ‘The poison of vipers is on their lips.’ ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:10-23)
All of us, the best, most loving, most righteous human beings, still fall short of the glory of God. Why? Because we operate in an entirely different way from God. "‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” (Isa 55:8-9) We operate based upon the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We love and hate in a selfish way. Human love is selfish; God’s love is selfless. God’s good is as different from typical human good as day is from night.
Making sense of sin
When we understand the difference between humans and God, between our typical love and good and God's absolute love and good, sin makes sense. Sin is another one of those problematic words for our contemporary culture. It tends to be either a completely meaningless and ignored word or one that is so pregnant with emotive connotations that we cringe in guilt, fear and shame but never understand it. The bottom line in both cases is the word becomes useless. It is vital that we come to a practical understanding of sin. Sin is the problem with the human business and the Christian business plan proposes to free the business of this sin problem. Thus we need to know what sin is if we are going to understand both the business proposal and why our human business is performing sub-optimally. If we do happen to think of sin, we usually envision our grossest evil: murder, hatred, theft, adultery. But sin is actually something very practical. In the classical forerunner of the everyday Greek language used by the early Church, the word meant to "miss the mark." If we consider this meaning juxtaposed with our understanding of how humans differ from God, i.e., not only in our evil but also in our good, the practical meaning of sin begins to emerge. To understand it fully, we need to understand the ultimate goal of the business plan. At the end of the Christian business plan, we are with God forever sharing perfect love and joy with Him. We call this Heaven. We do not need to picture Heaven as white light, jeweled thrones and boring harp music (I actually like harp music). I recently heard a wonderful description of God and Heaven very appropriate to the Maine outdoors where I live. The speaker envisioned the three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as three very good friends out in the woods together. Perhaps they are ice fishing or camping but they are sitting around the fire in three camp chairs, beer in hand, feet up on the fire pit stones. The setting really does not matter. The important point is they are so comfortable with each other, so loving, so delightedly happy to be with each other. It has always been this way, is now and always will be because they are one – one absolute good and exchange an eternally sustainable love between them. What Jesus has done by the will of the Father is to set out a fourth chair. The fourth chair is for us. We are invited to sit around that camp fire (or fireplace, craft table or whatever else suits your way of thinking) and participate in the eternal, joyful, loving unity of God. However, to do so in perfect peace for all eternity, we must be as God is. No one will enter Heaven who is not completely, perfect, selfless love for when we finally come into the full presence of God, we will be as He is. "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (I John 3:2 NIV). "When he appears" may refer to His return to Earth or His appearance Page 26
in our lives at death but the point remains: when we see God as He is, we will be like Him. When we fall short of the perfection which is God and which is required for an eternally sustainable life style, we miss the mark. In other words, we sin. When we choose that which is not the selfless love of God either by a willful choice to pursue self over love or because we are overwhelmed by our biological and psychological inputs, we sin. This may be by choosing to do something which exalts self over love (commission) or by choosing to not do the love we see to do (omission). "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." (James 4:17 NIV) We will not take the time here to discuss what happens to those who die not yet perfect (the vast majority of us) but have not fully rejected God either. Nor will we discuss the varying severity of sins. It is one thing to be grumpy around the camp fire while it is another to assault the other campers with a machete. Our point here is that the Christian business plan proposes to bring us to Heaven, the eternal, joyful presence of God filled with selfless, perfect and eternally sustainable love – to sit with God in that fourth chair around the camp fire thoroughly enjoying being with each other for eternity. To do that, we must become perfect, sustainable, selfless love ourselves. When we are anything else, we miss the mark and we sin. Now the Christian vocabulary starts to make sense. We are invited to become divine (II Pet 1:4), to think, feel, act and be as God is. But we cannot do this on our own. We sin, that is, we fall short of the perfection that is God. We cannot change our very nature by ourselves so we need someone to save us from our sins, that is, a Savior who saves us from being incapable of living an eternal existence in uninterrupted joy, peace and love. Let's read a little more of that section of the Bible from the first letter of John: Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. (I John 3:2-5 NIV) Notice that we must be purified if we are to be as God is - just as God is pure. We also see it is God who has come in the person of Jesus to take away our sins – to save us from our sins and make us able and worthy to sit in the fourth chair. And finally note there is no sin in God. Sin is departure from being like God. Do the plan and vocabulary make a little more sense now? Of course, we also need God to forgive us for the times we have spurned His love and acted selfishly toward Him and His creation. These are the two parts of "salvation," namely, "justification," the forgiveness of our sins, and "sanctification," transforming us from our sinfulness, our inconsistent mix of good and evil and our unsustainable, selfish love into the eternally sustainable, perfect love of God. We need both – fixing what we broke and keeping us from breaking it again in the future. But, enough of the vocabulary lesson and technical jargon. Back to the business plan now that we have explained some of the plan's key words!
Being transformed from human good and evil to God’s selfless love is the key to our ultimate victory over sin. Overcoming sin is not exercising enormous self-discipline to resist the many temptations that are in our flesh. Certainly those pulls are there as Paul attests in Romans 7 and I most certainly do not mean that we should stop exercising self-discipline to resist those temptations to sin. However as long as sin can find fertile ground in us to put ourselves first before others, to exalt ourselves over others, to do what we want to do at the expense of others, to "look out for number one," to get rather than give, we have not entirely overcome sin; we are not divine; we are not ready to sit in the fourth chair. This understanding of overcoming sin is not only vital to our own lives but resolves a seeming contradiction in scripture. Consider how James addresses the issue. I particularly like how it is translated in the New American Standard Bible: "Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death." (James 1:13-15) Now look at Heb 4:15 "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin." If God cannot be tempted with evil and Jesus is God, how could Jesus be tempted in every way just as we are? Why did Christ not sin? Was it because of monumental self-control? I am sure Christ had extraordinary self-control but so did Job and Paul. Self-control can be a human trait. If overcoming sin could be done with these human traits we could not say salvation is only in Christ. What did Christ have as a human that was different? He was also divine. He had God’s nature. He was able to think and feel and act like God. He was selfless. Christ was tempted, no doubt, but we must realize we use the word “tempted” in two different ways. We might call these external and internal temptation. When another person puts something in front of us for the purpose of enticing us, we say we are being tempted. The other person is tempting us and we may or may not respond. “The financial officer tempted the accountant to embezzle company funds but the accountant was not interested.” However temptation may also arise from within, that is, internal temptation. “The accountant saw the high profits and weak security of the company and was tempted to embezzle company funds.” In one case someone else is tempting us and we say we are tempted whether or not we respond. In the other case, temptation arises within us and by definition we have already responded. Christ had all the things which tempt us placed before Him but He did not respond. Why? Because He was not interested in gratifying Himself over others. His thoughts and being revolved around loving others, not taking from others. He thought selflessly. He was and is perfect, divine, selfless love – the same as we are ultimately called to be. He may have been hungry; He certainly had testosterone flowing through his veins yet the desire to take from someone else to gratify Himself was totally foreign to Him. Sin had no fertile ground in which to take root. Satan could have placed the most delightful meal, the most beautiful woman, or the greatest sum of riches before Christ but it would have been a totally foreign thought to Christ to take them selfishly at the expense of hurting others and disobeying God.
Some might say Christ was tempted and was selfish in the garden of Gethsemane just before He died when He asked His Father to take away the cup of His suffering. This perfectly illustrates the point. There is nothing wrong in not wanting to be beaten, scourged, and crucified but it was a totally foreign thought to Christ to escape this extreme suffering if it meant disobeying God’s will. "‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’" (Mark 14:36) Let me illustrate it this way. Someone might tempt me to eat more chocolate than I should and I might respond to such temptation. Sin (if eating chocolate could ever be considered a sin!) could find fertile ground to take root and grow because I do have a desire to eat chocolate. On the other hand, someone might tempt me to drink hot tar yet I do not think I will respond. Somehow, I have absolutely no desire to drink hot tar. In this case, sin (drinking hot tar) could find no fertile ground in me; it could not take root and grow or, as James says, conceive and give birth. Christ had no desire to exalt Himself over others. To hurt, to lust, to steal, to take from others to gratify Himself was a totally foreign concept. As God, He was totally selfless. There was no desire to take from another to serve the self and, as such, sin could find no fertile ground in Him. Tempt as he might, Satan could find no chink in Christ’s armor, no fertile ground to plant sin, because sin was a totally foreign and undesirable concept to the selfless mind of God in Jesus Christ. This is how we ultimately win the battle against sin. We do not ultimately conquer sin by exercising enormous self-control (although we certainly should exercise self-control if we are battling temptation) but by being transformed into the selfless mind of God that has no desire to sin – a mind and heart which provide no fertile ground for sin to grow and, thus, like God, cannot be tempted with sin. This ultimate form of overcoming sin is why we absolutely need Jesus Christ and cannot be righteous on our own. As humans, we can only battle sin with self-control. We can only try to conform ourselves to an external law. Our basic nature is still selfish and, therefore, sin can find fertile ground. We can be and are tempted and only beat back that temptation with self-control. When Christ is living in us, we are being transformed to have the selfless mind of God. As we come to think and feel selflessly like God, sin can no longer find fertile ground and we, like God, will not be tempted to sin. Will we struggle as we keep falling back into thinking like humans instead of God? Of course! Just read Paul’s famous revelation of his own struggles in Romans 7. We will struggle; we will fall; but by God’s grace and power we will grow in godliness and, one day, into the fullness of Jesus Christ where sin will no longer be able to find fertile ground – true overcoming! This is a very mature state of Christianity and it can only come as a grace from God but, after all, that is exactly what Christianity is. James 1:21 is rather interesting in this regard: "Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls." (NASB). It is not as clear in English as it is in the Greek text but note that filthiness and wickedness is something we put aside like taking off a dirty shirt. In contrast, the word which saves is implanted – it must come from within, like yeast which transforms the entire dough.
Let me clarify this concept a bit. I am speaking of the ultimate state of perfection to which God calls us. For most, and usually all, of our lives, we will still struggle with the temptation to sin. God uses our struggle with temptation to build the love which ultimately overcomes sin. Wait! Isn't that a contradiction? Haven't I just said that our self-disciplined resistance to sin is not how we ultimately overcome sin yet our struggle with sin builds the love which overcomes sin? How can that be?
A purpose for the struggle
Our self-disciplined resistance against sin is important but it is not ultimately how we overcome sin. Overcoming sin completely means changing our nature and we cannot do that ourselves. So what purpose does our resistance to sin have and why is it important? First of all, our struggles are not for God – they are not some way for God to see how serious we are about overcoming. God already knows our hearts. It's actually quite the opposite. Our struggles are for us. They serve at least three important purposes. First, our struggle against sin initially demonstrates to us how little rather than how much we sometimes desire to overcome sin. We usually start the Christian Journey thinking far too much of ourselves and dreadfully underestimating God. Our selfish, human piety masks the underlying vanity and arrogance that still infects us. Our struggle with sin helps strip that away and give us a greater appreciation for just how godly God is. Talk is cheap. We can profess our love and devotion to God all we want but, when we fail in our struggle against sin, we show we are willing to put something before God. The second purpose is closely related: our failed struggles against sin even when we truly desire not to sin, demonstrate to us how weak we are before sin. Once again, it strips away our arrogance, self-trust and helps us to see just how great is this God who never sins – we begin to see the beauty of holiness as opposed to the ugliness of our leprous souls. We begin to truly see our need for the internal healing of our souls and not just the external need for change. Thus these first two purposes for the struggle combine to bring us to a profound selfknowledge. They humble us and bring us to the starting line. They open our eyes to see ourselves, to see God and to see the unbridgeable chasm between the two. Our struggle reveals our miserable inclination to sin, our hopelessness before it, and the contrasting beauty of God who is not even tempted by the sin that so easily enslaves us. Once we begin to understand this self-knowledge and, by consequence, this knowledge of God, God can begin the process of setting us free. Now we can see a third purpose for our struggle with sin – our struggles and anguish over sin measure our transformation – they become a barometer which encourages us that we are indeed changing and our divine love for God (as opposed to the superficial, selfish, and human love for God we initially had) is growing. And grow we will but by God's grace and not by our own strength. This is the point of this subsection – our struggles show us ourselves, our need for God, and serve to encourage us as we grow toward God but it is not the struggle that overcomes sin – it is the grace of God tearing out the root of sinfulness – the fertile soil of our selfish good and evil. It is only God who can bring us to this ultimate state of overcoming.
Once we arrive at this blessed state, we find the most remarkable freedom – freedom to love. Notice Paul's statement in Gal 5:13: "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature ; rather, serve one another in love." (NIV). That is an interesting juxtaposition of words – especially from a writer of this time period. The Roman economy ran on slavery. In a world filled with slaves who would give anything to end their service and be free, what does Paul say? "You are free therefore serve!" This seems like a very strange view of freedom, indeed. We usually think of freedom as being free to do what we want for self. But this is no longer the case if our life goal is for love rather than self. Now we seek to be free of the slavery to self. The freedom we seek is no longer the freedom to do what we want for self but rather freedom from self to consistently choose love. Love, freedom – they are inextricably bound. One cannot exist without the other and both in their pure and perfect forms can only come from God. "Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, 'If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. . . Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed." (John 8:31-32,34-36 NASB). Let's think about this relationship between love and freedom for a minute. If we love because ______ (fill in the blank), then it is not perfect love. If we love for some self oriented reason, for some inner demon that drives us to love – fear of being rejected, fear of not being loved, the desire to be loved in return or because we are inspired to love – then our love is not simply because we are love. For love to be completely perfect, it must be completely free. It must not be because someone has given us a reason to love them or because we have some inner slavery to self that drives us to love. No, to be fit for eternity, we must simply love because it is our nature – because we have become partakers of the divine nature and love as God loves. Yes, for love to be perfect it must be perfectly free but there is one more important word to add to the mix . . . suffering.
Love, Freedom, and Suffering
In our society which seems to withhold no expense and effort to eliminate death, disease, discomfort, and suffering, this bold statement by the Apostle James stands out as unusual, illogical, almost mentally ill: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds."(James 1:2 NIV) Why? How? Surely we can endure our trials but to rejoice in them!? James tells us why in the next verse: ". . . because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance." (James 1:3, NIV). Can we begin to see how selflessness, how a godly perspective instead of a human perspective, makes it possible to rejoice in our trials? Being transformed from human good and evil to God’s selfless love is the how and why of rejoicing in trials. We rejoice in our trials because our trials spiritually perfect us! This is the true essence of faith. Faith is not trusting God to bless us with physical abundance if we obey Him. Abraham had faith and was financially blessed; Isaiah had faith and was sawn in half. Note this dual-sided description of the faithful in Heb 11:32-39 (NIV): And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Page 31
Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith . . . Faith is trusting God to spiritually perfect us through both blessings and trials. If we, like God, are more concerned with our spiritual perfection instead of our physical comfort, then we can rejoice in our trials because we know they are furthering God’s purpose in our lives. We are thinking in godly, selfless terms instead of selfish human terms. Frequently this spiritual perfection through trials takes the form of being better able to serve others after our trials. Notice Heb 2:16-18 (NIV): "For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." Jesus Christ himself suffered so He could better serve us. I do not think the great God had to come down and suffer so He could understand us; He understood us and all things from the beginning. I believe it was more for our sake, namely, so it would be easier for us to believe He understands us. Now we cannot possibly say, “Sure, God, that’s easy for you to say but you haven’t suffered like the humans you created!” Whether God really had to or not is a side issue but the important point is He did come and suffer as a human so He could better serve us. If we focus on how we are being better prepared to serve others by means of our trials instead of how our trials are hurting us, then we truly can rejoice in our trials. This is how Paul looked at his trials. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (II Cor 1:3-4 NIV). We can rejoice in trials but it takes a selfless perspective, God’s perspective. When we selflessly look at how our trials help us to help others, when we focus on how our trials are spiritually perfecting us and fashioning us into the tool God wants for His eternal service, how they help us understand and grow in God's love by allowing us to imitate His suffering for the sake of others, how they help us to grow to finally love our Beloved with the love with which He loves us, then we can enthusiastically agree with James – "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds."
There is much more to say on the important and largely misunderstood subject of suffering – so much so that it will be the subject of a later work. Let me briefly say, suffering is not an aberration. It is part of the world God has made as the laboratory for our perfection. For love to be perfect, it must be perfectly free and the freedom of our love is built, tried, and proved (to us, not to God) in the crucible of suffering. "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." (I Peter 1:6-7 NIV). God has so ordered the world that suffering and its salvific effect bring us to the most mature levels of Christianity – into the deepest imitation of Christ who freely suffered for us. Notice this fascinating section from Paul's letter to the Philippians where he expresses his deepest desires: Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phili 3:8-11 RSV) Notice Paul did not regard suffering as something to flee but rather something to be embraced. To know Christ, Paul wants to share His sufferings. We cannot come to fully know and live the love of God as manifested in Jesus Christ until we come to the freedom of sharing His sufferings not by obligation, constraint or the circumstances of life but by love. Enough on this for now; as I mentioned, this is a whole subject unto itself.
Selflessness and the Sermon on the Mount
The illustrations of Christianity Christ gave in the sermon on the mount jump alive when we better understand what Christianity is. I think we can all appreciate that Christianity is becoming more Christ-like but what was Christ like? Christ, as God, is selfless, godly love. When we finally come to see Christianity not as a culture, tradition or set of rules, but rather as a transformation from human selfishness to Christ-like (Christian) selfless love, then we can clearly see the points Christ was making in His classic portrayal of the Christian mentality. Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.’ (Mat 5:1-9 NIV) These, generally, are expressions of selflessness but more specific illustrations are yet to come in the rest of the chapter. ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and Page 33
the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca, ' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.’ (Mat 5:20-22 NIV) ‘You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Mat 5:27-28 NIV) Here we have two classic examples of how Christ magnified the law. However, I sometimes fear that what Christ meant by magnifying the law and what we understand are two different things. Christ did not magnify the law by making it more strict or adding more details. Jesus is not saying here, “In the past you could look but not touch; now you can’t even look.” He is not saying, “In the past you could fly off the handle as long as you didn’t kill the object of your rage, now you have to maintain self-control.” In fact, Christ is not issuing any commandments here at all! I believe that He is describing the problem. In this section of the sermon on the mount, Christ is not saying, “You shall not lust” (although lust is certainly wrong) nor is He saying, “You shall not hate” (although hate is certainly wrong). Instead He is describing the problem with the kind of righteousness that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had. I fear that too often He is also describing the problem with the kind of righteousness many Christians have. Note that the preface to these statements about hate and lust is Jesus' statement that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. If magnifying the law means adding more detail and making it more strict, then the Pharisees would have been the most righteous people on earth. It does not matter if we turn “remember the Sabbath day” into “you shall not carry anything heavier than a fig on the Sabbath” or “you shall not commit adultery” into “you shall not lust.” Magnifying the law is not making it more strict or adding more detail. No matter how zealously Pharisees or Christians try to head in this direction, it is the wrong direction. It is as if God said, “Go from New York City to Phoenix, Arizona” and so the Pharisees started building a boat. They built the best boat they possibly could and each generation they built it better and better. The only problem is you cannot get to Phoenix from New York by boat! If we follow the error of the Pharisees and start building a boat to become righteous, then we are in deep trouble because we will never build a better boat than the Pharisees built and Christ has already told us that the Pharisees’ boat cannot get there. "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 5:20 NIV). We have to find another means of transportation – car, train, plane, transporter beam – anything but a boat! As long as we are forcing ourselves to conform to an external set of commandments, we are not walking in God’s righteousness. Does this make the need for the new covenant any clearer? “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). We will deal with the new covenant at much greater length later but the point for now is that, as long as our hearts and minds remain human, selfish and untransformed into Christ’s selfless love, the best we can do is try to force ourselves to obey an external set of written rules. If all we do is not commit adultery, that is good but we may still want to. If we change the rule to read “you shall not lust,” and now we try to put out lustful thoughts, that is good but there is still fertile ground in our selfishness Page 34
for lust to take root. We may win one battle at a time but we never win the war. There is always the possibility of sin because our hearts are still our hearts rather than God’s heart; they are still human not divine; they are still conforming to an external rule and not changed from the inside out. It is not a matter of conforming to what we are not naturally but a matter of changing what we are. It is not until we change what we are and become transformed into God’s selfless love that we develop God’s righteousness. In this way it becomes against our nature to sin because it is against God’s nature to sin. When we develop God’s nature (II Pet 1:4), it will then be against our nature to sin. This gets back to the idea that we discussed above – growing in God’s selfless love is true overcoming. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. It is a totally different way of looking at righteousness and law. It is a transporter beam instead of a boat! The point of this section is that Christ is explaining how Christian righteousness exceeds that of the “ultra-righteous” Pharisees. We are missing the point if we think that Christ was magnifying the law by making it stricter. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" are not the same words as “but I tell you, do not lust.” The second phrase is just another external command; it is trying to do the Pharisees one better; it is trying to build a better boat. What Christ actually said is a description of the problem, not a command. He has just said that Christian righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. He then demonstrates what He means by showing that the problem with the Pharisees was not their conduct but their heart – it was human, selfish, untransformed in Christ and hence, by definition, ungodly. No amount of the strictest commandment keeping can change our innermost nature. It may make us a better, happier, nicer person but it cannot change us from human to divine. Nothing can change us from being and thinking and feeling and acting like humans into being and thinking and feeling and acting like God except Jesus Christ living in us. That is why righteousness comes only through Jesus Christ and not the law. That is why our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. ‘You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’ (Mat 5:38-42 NIV) So many have struggled with these statements of Jesus, especially about turning the other cheek. Frequently, we struggle because we are making the same mistake of looking at these as commands instead of what they are – illustrations to make a point. Christ is not describing actual behavior here. The point is not that we should literally give someone the other side of our face to hit if they have struck us. The point is never stop living God’s way, that is, thinking about others. Christ is saying we should not react with “how could he do that to me” but rather, no matter what anyone does to us, never stop selflessly loving others, never stop living God’s way – always take the smallest piece of pie even with those who hurt us. This is another illustration in this famous “sermon” where Christianity is demonstrated as living like Christ in selfless love.
This love is concerned about others no matter what they do to us. Even if they strike us, sue us unjustly, force us to labor or crucify us, our concern is always for others – just like God. No matter how much we hurt Him, no matter how many times we disobey or disrespect or turn the other way, God is always thinking of us. He always loves us because God is love. So must we be – God's selfless love. ‘You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Mat 5:43-48 NIV) Could we ask for any more clear example. This type of selfless love is spiritual perfection. God sends rain on the righteous and the wicked and makes His sun shine on the good and evil because His love does not depend on them. God’s love does not depend on whether we are good or evil, righteous or wicked. If it did, we would all be in big trouble (Rom 5:8). God’s love depends on the fact that God is love. Christ commands us to be the same. Our love must not depend on whether we are interacting with our brother or the person who has slapped us in the face. Our love must depend on the fact that God dwells in us and God is love. Then we will be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Why We Need a Savior
I hope that our discussion of the Christian Journey to this point is beginning to awaken an understanding and appreciation of why we need a Savior. That word has become so undervalued in western culture. It has become an ethereal, intangible, barely meaningful "spiritual" word in our vocabulary. To show how ugly, selfish, arrogant, and sinful I can be, in the past, I used to delight in tormenting those who would ask me if I was saved. I remember driving across the United States as a young theology student and stopping at a gas station in Arkansas. The enthusiastic attendant noticed the miniature Bible in my shirt pocket and said, "Are you saved, brother?" Instead of accepting his enthusiasm and sincerity, in my arrogance I replied, "Saved from what?" He paused for a moment and said, "You know, SAVED." "Yes, but saved from what?" He sputtered and stammered and could only say, "Well, you know, like saved." I am a very sinful man . . . but it does show how empty and meaningless the words have become. It was much more palpable to the Israelites of the Old Testament and the Jews of Jesus' day. To them, a savior was the one who saved them from an overwhelmingly powerful enemy against whom they could not stand. Without a savior, they were doomed to oppression at best and death at worst.
Notice this description of a savior in Isaiah 19:20 (NIV) "It will be a sign and witness to the LORD Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the LORD because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them." The savior rescues them from their oppressors. We find the same concept in Ezra's description of the period of the Judges in Nehemiah 9:27 (RSV): "Therefore thou didst give them into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer; and in the time of their suffering they cried to thee and thou didst hear them from heaven; and according to thy great mercies thou didst give them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies." How bad was this oppression? Worse than most of us in the prosperous Western World could ever understand. Here is an example from the book of Judges: Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help. (Judges 6:1-6 NIV) The people were dying of starvation. They were completely overrun by an enemy they could not withstand. There was no hope and no strength. They needed a savior to rescue them from an enemy they could not defeat on their own. So it is with us. We can change what we do but we are helpless to change what we are. We cannot defeat the enemy of our own sinfulness. We are helpless before our selfishness. We may wish to change our selfishness but only for selfish reasons! It is an unbreakable cycle – a complete conundrum. We can improve our lives; we can make the world a better place; we can work toward enlightened self-interest. But we cannot change ourselves into the divine. We cannot make ourselves capable of an eternally sustainable lifestyle on our own. We cannot be made fit for eternity no matter what our advances in medicine or psychology. We are hopelessly oppressed by our selfishness and there is only one way to salvation from our hopeless oppression – our Savior, Jesus Christ. It is only by a miracle that changes our very nature that we can be made divine – fit for eternity. Do we now understand these words? Salvation, Savior. Perhaps before now, they were empty, meaningless platitudes that rolled from our lips in church. Once we grasp the depth of our desperation, how deeply we are oppressed, how we unknowingly spend our lives half in Hell in a selfish love-vacuum and begin to appreciate the miracle of our deliverance from this living Hell, the words become pregnant with meaning and our hearts burst in gratitude to our Savior who has saved us from ourselves. For many years, I designed large computer networks for a living. I was always amazed when I would walk into a miserably performing network and everyone would think it was just fine. It had been so bad for so long that the users accepted abysmal performance as normal. They had no idea how good it could be. So it is for us in our living Hell of selfishness. We have no idea Page 37
how bad it really is and how good it can really be. I hope the blinders are starting to come off our eyes. Our understanding of salvation becomes real and our gratitude and praise of God grounded, tangible and meaningful when we finally see ourselves contrasted to God. We see the true depths of our misery – our oppressive selfishness, our living Hell. We begin to see the beauty of holiness – what it means to live in a world of selfless love. We see how different God's Heaven is from our Earth. How different God is from man. Then we realize the incredible gift God is offering us by His grace. He is offering to make us like Him (I John 3:2) – to transform us from human to divine (II Peter 1:4). We will not stay hopeless under the oppression of our selfishness. No matter how serious our sins, no matter how much we struggle underneath their weight, no matter how many times we collapse and cry out over the pain we cause those we love, God has promised us salvation if we remain faithful. One day, we will be divine, we will no longer cause pain to those we love and those around us. We will be selfless love with no trace of selfishness for, by the power of God, we will be divine. God has promised; so it will be; we shall be saved.
Christianity without God?
Until we grasp the enormity of God's plan, the chasmic difference between the fallen human and the divine nature and God's transforming action within us to change us from one to the other (which phenomenon itself IS Christianity), we are in danger of building a Christianity without God. Sadly, this is what many non-Christians see when they observe Christianity and, sadder still, it is what many Christians inadvertently live in their everyday lives. We must understand that Christianity cannot happen apart from God. Please bear with my silliness; this is not as obvious a point as it first seems. We cannot change what we are by nature. As we keep saying, that requires a miracle – a savior – for we must be saved from ourselves – a foe we cannot vanquish on our own. How strange – our selves are too weak to overcome our selves. Is it starting to make sense why we seem to struggle endlessly with the same old problems? It is the same old self! Startlingly, the concept of Christianity which many Christians unconsciously hold does not require God at all! It is unwittingly a Christianity without Christ. No wonder Christianity can seem so hypocritical and contradictory to those looking at it from the outside. Now that we have begun our discussion of the Christian Journey, of what Christianity is, let's discuss some things Christianity is not. I propose to you again that Christianity is not a religion. The minute Christianity becomes a religion, it ceases to be Christianity. In truth, there is a Christian religion and Christians participate in this religion but participation in this religion does not make one a Christian. Neither is Christianity a moral code although Christians are moral people. Christianity is not a philosophy although it has a very distinctive world view. Christianity is not defined by doctrine although there are doctrines and dogmas within Christianity. Christianity is not even a way of life although it changes everything the Christian does. Christianity is not produced by conformance to something external to the Christian. Christianity is not produced by any act, will or choice on the part of humans alone. As we have begun to see, humans cannot find Christianity within their own power. It is not defined by a belief in a superhuman being. Believing in the God of the Christians does not make Page 38
one a Christian. It is not defined by participation in rituals. Participating in Christian traditions does not make one a Christian. Christianity is not defined by dogma or doctrine. Adhering to teachings of various Christian sects does not make one a Christian. Keeping commandments does not make one a Christian. All of these can be done by humans all on their own. They do not require Jesus Christ except as a figurehead and phenomenon of the past. Any definition of Christianity such as the ones stated above does not require a living Jesus Christ and yet a living Jesus Christ is a basic tenet of Christianity. That seems a little strange, doesn't it? Something is fatally flawed with such understandings of Christianity. The view that many Christians themselves hold of Christianity is logically and scripturally flawed and inconsistent. It is therefore no surprise that the understanding of Christianity by non-Christians is usually flawed and inaccurate. Thankfully, a wonder of Christianity is that it is not predicated upon perfect knowledge. A Christian can be a Christian without fully understanding what a Christian is. But how much better if both Christians and non-Christians had a clearer understanding of what does define a Christian and all the sublime and profound implications of that understanding. How much better if we understood the Christian Journey and could embrace the business turnaround plan. We have introduced the idea that Christianity is internal to the Christian; it is the action of a living and present God, of a living and present Jesus, in the soul and body of a human and is not conformance to something external to the Christian such as belief, tradition, commandments, or doctrine. This internal phenomenon does not negate Church, doctrine, law or objective truth. Indeed, the Church is both the symbol and agent of that which produces Christianity and conveys the words spoken by the living and present Jesus when He walked the Earth as a human. In the words of the Apostle Paul, it is the Church which is the ordinary means through which God communicates truth. " . . . you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (I Tim 3:15). Later, Paul reminds his beloved disciple, Timothy, to remember where he learned the truth – from those who passed it on to him. "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (II Tim 3:14-15). Neither does the fact that Christianity is an internal phenomenon mean Christians are free to follow their internal compass exclusively and do whatever they want. At the beginning of the Christian Journey, it is likely that our internal compass is severely disoriented. If it were not, we would not need a new business plan. It is only at the end of the Christian Journey that we arrive at the famous words of Augustine, "Love, and do what you will" (Ten Homilies on First John, Homily VII:8). Only then is our internal compass so completely aligned with God that it will never lead us astray. Our misperceptions about love and good and our lack of experience and wisdom in living the selfless love that comes from God also stand us in danger of misunderstanding and thus misusing the freedom Christianity brings. Once more from the Apostle Paul: For you were called to freedom, brothers. But do not use his freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather serve one another through love. . . For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. (Gal 5:13,17 NAB)
Hmm . . . a freedom which results in our not doing what we want. That seems like an odd definition of freedom. We briefly touched on this very important subject of freedom earlier. Now let's return to the matter at hand. The point is that external conformance to Church, doctrine, commandments or truth by human effort and choice alone is not Christianity. If it was, it would not require a living and present Jesus – only an historical one who died for our sins. To use the technical terms, we need both justification and sanctification. Justification required Jesus' sacrificial act of willingly submitting Himself to death by crucifixion 2000 years ago – something made present in every act of reconciliation with God but still rooted in the Jesus of history. If that is all we need Jesus for and the rest is our human willed conformance to some external standard, then we only need the historical Jesus. But Christianity is not a human endeavor; it is not a human religion. It requires not only justification (the forgiveness of our sins) but also sanctification (solving the problem that caused us to sin in the first place). Sanctification requires a living Jesus living in us and transforming us today and every day. The process of sanctification, the miracle of transformation from human to divine, IS Christianity; it is the Christian Journey! Christianity is a phenomenon that happens to a person, not something outside of a person to which one conforms. It changes Christians completely. It does not just change what they do but changes the very nature of what they are. Christianity requires changes, behavior, and thought patterns which are not humanly possible. We will soon explore how Christianity proposes to make the impossible possible and further appreciate the true and unavoidable centrality of Christ to Christianity. Finally, we will begin an examination of the implications of this phenomenon which we will continue in subsequent works. Christianity is a phenomenon, not a religion. We must move away from these Christ-less models of Christianity which relegate Christianity to one of many equal choices among religions. When we instead focus on the transforming miracle that is Christianity, not only does it place the living Christ at the center of Christianity as the one who performs this daily miracle, not only can it make our Christianity leap to a newness of life, it can surprise us and help us see that Christianity may not be very present in some places where we assumed it was thriving and may be thriving in places we thought it was not even present!
Summary and Reflection
We have covered an awful lot of ground and have just finished a massive digression so let’s take a moment to review. We began in Rom 8:7, ". . . because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so" (NASB) and asked, “why can’t it be subject to the law of God?” Can we not just start keeping God’s commandments? What about Paul before conversion? We then saw that God’s law really is not just a laundry list of do's and don’t's. At its root it is love. Then we said, “Is it not possible to love?” We realized that almost every mother loves her child. Love abounds among those who never give a thought for God. Why can humans not simply love and thereby fulfill the law? We then saw that human love is not God’s love and, thus, cannot fulfill God’s law.
God’s love is selfless love as epitomized in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Human love is generally selfish. Human love usually depends on what one receives from the other; we love those who give us a reason to love them. God’s love depends on the fact that He is love and is not dependent upon any reinforcement He receives from us. He loves the sinner and the righteous because His love does not depend on their conduct. Although human love and good are better than evil, they still fall short of what God wants in us and what is necessary for an eternally sustainable lifestyle. We must develop God’s love or we will not have God’s righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees. Our own human love is not sufficient. We absolutely need a savior – Jesus Christ. When, as a twenty-one year old theology student, I finally understood that Christianity was becoming selfless as Christ is selfless, I felt utterly absurd. I realized I wanted to become selfless . . . but for totally selfish reasons! It was a hopeless cycle. I wanted to inherit eternal life, I wanted the happiness which comes from living God’s way and so I wanted to be selfless – for totally selfish reasons – a hopeless cycle. Being human I could only think in selfish terms yet I knew I needed to be selfless. It was like standing on the shore of the Red Sea. I knew I needed to be on the other side but I couldn't swim that far! There was absolutely no way for me to get to the other side. Like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea to escape their slavery in Egypt, this salvation, this transformation from human selfishness to godly selflessness can only take place by means of a miracle. It is the miracle of conversion – a miracle greater than the parting of the Red Sea, greater than the creation of the universe, greater than any other! It is an utter miracle to have the very nature of what we are transformed as Paul describes in Rom 12:2 and Gal 2:20. But how does it happen? How do we work with the process instead of against it? How do we participate in the business plan. That is the subject of the next chapter. This chapter has made its point. Christianity calls for repentance. It requires a change. We do not just repent of the bad things we have done or the evil we see within ourselves. We must repent of almost everything we are, both the evil and the selfish good, because both are on a wrong foundation of selfishness. That is why humans with only a carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God. If we have only turned from our evil and have not developed the love of God instead of just our own human love, then we have not fully repented and are still trying to establish our own righteousness apart from Jesus Christ. If we are apart from Jesus Christ, we are not a Christian. It is only God living in us with His form of selfless good that fulfills His law and makes us ready to receive His gift of eternal life. Before we move on to the next chapter, I would like you to pause for a moment. Close your eyes for a few minutes and think of what your corner of the world would be like if it was built upon selfless love. As we trace the threads of our lives and our society further and further back along their path of selfishness and then retrace them, reinvent our lives and society along the path of selflessness, our eyes begin to open. We begin to see the world as it is and as it could be. Look all around through the clear lens of this understanding. Most of all, look deep inside. How different could the world be? How different could we be? Are you ready to begin? Let's now plunge into the first steps of the Christian Journey.
How Christianity Changes
Standing on the Shore of the Red Sea
In the last chapter we examined the nature of Christian change. We looked at Rom 8:7, "because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so;" (NASB) and saw clearly that Paul says the carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God. We then asked why not. Can humans not exercise self discipline and keep the law of God? Did not Paul himself say he was blameless regarding the Law before his conversion? We then realized that, by the law, Paul does not mean a list of commandments to obey but rather love. We boiled the law down to two great commandments and then summarized it even more concisely with the understanding that love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:10). But then we observed it is not just Christians who are capable of love. How could Paul mean that the carnal mind cannot love? We finally came to see it is not just any love which fulfills the law of God but rather the type of love God is – completely selfless love as epitomized in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We looked at Philippians 2:3-8 (NIV): Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Here we saw the perfect illustration of God’s love – the kind of love that fulfills God’s law. Christ had absolutely nothing to gain by coming to die for us. There was no “reinforcement” yet He came and died for us anyway. He came and died because He loves us and He loves us not for what we give to Him but because of what He is. It is this selfless love, love which is not dependent upon what we receive from another but rather upon what we are, which fulfills the law of God. This is the love which is eternally sustainable and thus makes us fit to receive eternal life. So we left the last section standing on the shore of the Red Sea. We understand we must be transformed from human, selfish love, good, and evil into godly, selfless love. We see our utter dependence upon Jesus Christ to be a Christian because we cannot transform the very nature of what we are by our own human effort. We see our constant defeat by the enemy – our selfish nature – that which causes us to hurt even the ones we love most. We see our helplessness before this overwhelming foe. Our only hope is a Savior to rescue us. We see the hopeless cycle – we want to be selfless but for selfish reasons! We know we need to be on the other side but have no idea of how to get there. This section will address how we get there. We now know the starting and finish lines. It is time to understand the path from one to the other. We understand what our transformation must be and why we must be transformed. Now we will discuss how to be transformed. What is the means of this miraculous transformation? The means is the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit and the Church
The Holy Spirit is the means of transformation in the church of God. In fact, He is absolutely central to the Church; He is at its very foundation. Without Him there would be no church! After all, how did the Church as we know it begin its mission to bring salvation to all the world? When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2:1-4 (NIV) And when those who heard asked what they should do, what was Peter’s response? "Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’" Acts 2:38 (NIV) The Holy Spirit is at the very core of the Church and it is good to note that He is a gift. He is not something we earn, deserve or claim by right. How does one become part of the Church? Many church organizations initiate members through the rite or sacrament of baptism. This may take many forms from adult baptism by immersion to infant baptism by pouring but baptism in water is both common and biblically sound. But now let me ask, does water baptism alone put us into the church? Let’s look at a few scriptures. "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink." I Cor 12:13 (NIV) Notice it is by one Spirit that we are made part of the body of Christ. This concept was earlier sounded by John the Baptist. "I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Mark 1:8 (NIV) As we examine the scriptures, we see that although water baptism is a valid and important Christian practice, it does not do anything if God does not act within it. Mechanical baptism with water alone does not make us part of the Church! It is being baptized with the Holy Spirit which actually makes us part of the body of Jesus Christ! It is then that baptism becomes both the sign and the agent of God's grace. If we stop and look at it for a moment, it makes perfect sense. Who administers baptism with water? A human being – usually a minister or a priest. Who administers baptism with the Holy Spirit? God does. One can fool a human – as the saying goes, we can go down a dry sinner and come up a wet one – but one cannot fool God. It is not a human who ultimately controls access to the Church. A minister or priest may control membership in an organization but it is God who controls access to the body of Jesus Christ. Without the Holy Spirit, the waters of baptism are useless. Similarly, what determines where the body of Christ is? Many have compiled lists of characteristics to prove they are the one true church of God – the only organization wherein God's children dwell. Searching the Bible from cover to cover, I can only find one thing that proves where the true body of Christ is. Paul used it in Galatians to distinguish between the true Church and false teachers.
"You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?" Gal 3:1-2 (NIV) Here Paul is battling the circumcision party. They were proclaiming a Christianity where Christians were made Christians by works of the law of Moses. Paul denounced this as false and heretical. How did Paul prove where true Christianity was? He asked where they received God’s spirit. Where is the true body of Christ? It is wherever His spirit is! Paul states this directly in Rom 8:9 (NIV). "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ." Who are Christians? Those who have the Holy Spirit. ". . . because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." Rom 8:14 (NIV) Where is the body of Christ? Wherever there are Christians. The fact that the body of Christ is wherever the Holy Spirit is, that is, wherever true Christians are, is a sword that cuts both ways. It demolishes the walls set up by those organizations which define Christianity by a different set of standards than God does and thus set themselves up as the one and only place where "true" Christianity is found. Christianity is defined neither by organization nor by doctrine but by the presence of the Holy Spirit wherever God so chooses to dwell. It also forces us to confront the brutal truth that membership in an organization we believe is Christian does not automatically imply we are Christians. Just because we are members of an organization that has Christians in it does not make us Christians! We must answer that question between God and us. Does the Holy Spirit live in us? If it does, we are Christians; if it does not, no matter what we think or say or do, we are not Christians.
The Holy Spirit is the Means
Christians are transformed from being human in nature to being Christlike. The Holy Spirit is the means of that transformation. It changes our way of thinking and feeling and being from human, selfish love, good, and evil to God’s selfless love. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will." Rom 12:2 (NIV) What is it that renews our mind? Let Paul clarify his own terms. "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit." Titus 3:3-5 (NIV) This renewal, this transformation is what the new covenant is all about. ‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it 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 Page 45
they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ Jer 31:31-34 (NIV) In the new covenant, God changes what we are; He transforms us. He transforms us from being hostile to God’s law (Rom 8:7). Without a Christian transformation the best we can do is obey God’s law by conforming ourselves to it against our nature because we want the reward it brings. In the new covenant, God changes our nature to be the law – to have it internally in our hearts. We now keep the law of God, not by conforming by force to a set of rules, but rather because our nature is to keep the law. We walk and talk and think and act and feel like God because we have His nature in us. His nature is His law. To Christians the law of God is not a list of do's and don’t's. As we have already seen, to a Christian, God’s law is walking in God’s selfless love. How does God put His love in our hearts? Through the Holy Spirit – "And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." Rom 5:5 (NIV) The Holy Spirit is the means, the how, of Christian transformation. It puts the love of God in our hearts. That is the new covenant of God writing His laws in our hearts. That is having our hearts and minds renewed. That is Christian transformation, or, to use the theological term, sanctifying grace – how we become divine (II Peter 1:4).
From Insanity to Sanity
Through the Holy Spirit, God literally transforms us from insanity to sanity. Notice this fascinating stretch of scripture in I Corinthians: However, as it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. I Cor 2:9-14 (NIV) What makes us think and act and feel like humans? It is the human spirit within us that leads us to think and act and feel like humans. "For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God." I Cor 2:11 It is the human spirit that makes us think and behave differently from a dolphin, chimpanzee, cow, horse, or chicken. It is also the human spirit that makes us think and behave differently from God. God’s spirit living within us enables us to think and act and feel like God! If that seems blasphemous, please do not take my word for it – read the scriptures: "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us Page 46
his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires." II Pet 1:3-4 (NIV) Peter tells us we “participate in the divine nature.” What an utterly extraordinary thought! Though limited now by our flesh, God gives Christians the incredible opportunity to participate in the divine nature – God's nature. Not in our flesh but in our minds and hearts we can think and act and feel and behave like God. We can do this not because of ourselves but because God lives in us. Can we see more clearly than ever how Christianity is not possible without Christ. We cannot have this nature on our own. We must be transformed and can be transformed by God and God only. It is only by Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit that we can be Christians. How does God enable us to participate in the divine nature? As cited above: “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” "And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." Oh what an enormous gift God has given to us! To change us from human to divine, from selfish, human nature to selfless, loving, divine nature is a gift that at once thrills us to leap for joy and to fall on our knees in gratitude and humility. Through His spirit, through Christ living in us, God saves us from not only death but total, abased insanity. The way humans think is totally upside down and backwards and we do not even realize it. If we stopped to think about, we would think God is crazy. If we met a human being who possessed all he could possibly want and had an enormously happy life and found he was going to allow himself to be killed when he had all power to stop those who would kill him and he would gain absolutely nothing from dying that he did not already have and the only reason he was doing it was to save a couple of worthless, pesky flies who spread disease and destruction, we would say he was out of his mind. We might forcibly commit him to a mental health hospital because he is dangerous to himself. If we look at the sacrifice of Jesus Christ from a human perspective, we would say He was absolutely out of His mind. To come and die for us worthless human beings would be complete and total insanity. Yet to God’s mind, to not come and die for us would be absolute insanity. From God’s perspective of selfless love, we humans are entirely insane. Until Christ comes into our lives and we begin the process of Christian transformation, we do not even recognize our own insanity.
Christ Versus the Old Self
Let’s return to the above mentioned idea of the centrality of Christ. It seems almost silly to discuss the centrality of Christ to Christianity but now that we have a clearer understanding of what Christianity is, of what Christian transformation is all about, of what occurs in the Christian phenomenon, we can begin to see how absolutely necessary Christ is. In the first chapter of this book, we noted that the new testament writers point to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ because it lucidly demonstrates the difference between human love and God’s love. They also point to it as their central focus because, without Christ, this transformation is unattainable.
The Christian transformation takes place, Christianity occurs, because Jesus Christ lives inside Christians. These are not empty words. God literally lives inside Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit. Listen to some of the final words of Jesus to his disciples. "On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you." John 14:20 (NIV) "Jesus replied, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’" John 14:23 (NIV). ". . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." John 17:21-23 (NIV). Paul described the same phenomenon. "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." Gal 2:20 (NIV). "To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." Col 1:27 (NIV). Christianity IS Christ living in us. Christianity is not becoming a better and better person. We can never improve ourselves by ourselves so that we are good as God is good. On our own we can never become capable of living an eternal existence in love. Something else that is good as God is good, something else that can love in an eternal environment must replace what we are. This is why Christianity is pictured as a death. Christianity is the death of the old self because the old self can never be made good enough. It must be replaced by a new creation, namely, Jesus Christ in us. When one comes to Christianity, one comes to the point where one is willing to die. All of our dreams, hopes, desires, ways, and goals die and we take on the dreams, hopes, desires, ways, and goals of Jesus Christ. That is quite a mouthful! The call of Christianity is not trivial no matter how badly it may be trivialized by those who either misunderstand it or exploit it as a business. Listen to Jesus' own words: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." Matt 16:24-25 (NIV). In an age when none of us has seen the horror that was death by crucifixion, the magnitude of this statement can escape us. To pick up one's cross was to march to one's death! Hence the contrast between saving and losing one's life. Christianity brings us to a tangible, meaningful, and daily denial and death of our selves and offers us a new self, a new life in exchange. Look at how Paul describes this: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin Page 48
once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Rom 6:1-12 (NIV) For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.Col 3:3 (NIV) Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Col 3:5 (NIV) Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Col 3:9-10 (NIV) Notice the old self versus the new self. One must die and be replaced by another that is in the image of the Creator. The old self must die. It can never be improved enough to be good enough for God. No matter how much he tries to improve himself, no matter how good he becomes on his own, John Sullivan will never be good enough for God. John Sullivan can never be good enough for God because, on his own, he cannot think, feel, act, and be like God. He can only think, feel, act, and be like a human. Only God can think, feel, act, and be like God. That is why we must have God living in us. This is the new self. This is Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col 1:27). This is Christianity. Can we begin to see more clearly than ever why Christ is central to Christianity? Humans cannot be Christian on their own. Humans can only be Christians through Christ living in us. This is why Christianity is not a religion, philosophy or moral code and why I prefer to refer to Christianity as a phenomenon. This is also why many Christians become deeply discouraged from time to time. Christians can become deeply discouraged when they see themselves falling into the same sins and weaknesses over and over again. They become frustrated that they are battling the same old battles and feel as if they have not grown as Christians. A big part of the problem is that they have a misunderstanding of Christian growth. As we have seen above, Christianity is not improving the old self until it is good enough for God. The old self will never be good enough. The only fate of which it is worthy is death. Many Christians view Christian growth as a continuum. They think that we continually get better and better. We gradually and slowly move from utter imperfection to lesser states of imperfection as we march on toward a perfection which will never be attainable in this life. Christian growth is emphatically not like that at all. Christian growth is not a gradual improvement of the old self until it is finally perfect. The old self must die and a new self must live. We give up one and pursue another. "And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" II Cor 5:15-17 (NIV). As we have already discussed, Christians have two natures within them: their human nature and the divine nature. The first is desperately weakened; the second is absolutely perfect. Understanding this points us in the right direction to understand Christian growth.
Christian growth is not a continuum; it is not a gradual journey from utter imperfection toward unattainable perfection. Christian growth is more like a switch. Sometimes we listen to the human voice within us and do what we want to do for humanly selfish reasons. This may be noble or ignoble selfishness but it is still selfishness. In these cases the “godly switch” is off and we are utterly imperfect. At other times we listen, yield to and obey the divine nature within us. We successfully listen to the voice of God within us and do what God would do for the same reasons God would do it because it is, indeed, God in us who is doing it. It is not our old self; it is not John Sullivan. It is Jesus Christ. In these cases the “godly switch” is on and we are spiritually perfect. We are spiritually perfect because it is not us but Jesus Christ in us and He is nothing but spiritually perfect. In our Christian lives, the switch alternates between on and off. Sometimes it seems to flicker back and forth between the two as we struggle with a decision but we always have two choices: the human nature or the divine; our way or God’s way; the lead of the human spirit or the lead of the Holy Spirit; spiritual imperfection or absolute spiritual perfection. As we grow, as we become further transformed, as we better follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, the switch will be on more of the time. Christian growth is not a matter of where on the continuum between utter imperfection and perfection we are. Christian growth is a matter of how consistently the switch is on. The more frequently it is on, the more frequently we are spiritually perfect. The less frequently it is on, the more frequently we are imperfect. There is no space between the two. They are as different as day and night and as far from one another as the heavens are above the Earth (Is 55:8-9). Why else would Christ tell us to be perfect if spiritual perfection was unattainable (Matt 5:48)? The problem is not so much attaining spiritual perfection as retaining spiritual perfection. When we allow Jesus Christ to live in us, when we do what He provokes us to do, we walk in spiritual perfection because it is Jesus Christ walking. The problem is staying there. Soon another thought must be thought and another decision must be made and the old self rises from the grave and we walk as ourselves instead of as Jesus Christ. Just the fact we have sinned is discouraging enough but many become even more frustrated because they did not expect to fall back into the same old habits. Do not expect the old self to change! Yes, we can change bad habits even as a mere human but, in general, do not expect the old self to change. Christian growth for John Sullivan is how often John Sullivan walks as Jesus Christ instead of John Sullivan. When the old John Sullivan rises out of the grave and walks in my flesh instead of Jesus Christ, it should not surprise me that I see the same old John Sullivan I have always seen! That is what John Sullivan is: the old self that must die. In our lives we will see either Jesus Christ or our old self. It should not surprise us when the old self looks like the same old self we have always known. It should not surprise us when we fall into the same old sins. After all, it is the same old man. We must strive to kill him so that only Jesus Christ lives in our lives. Christian growth is not measured by how much the old self has changed but by how frequently the switch is on. This understanding does not really change what we do. We must still battle against sin and yield to God's grace but at least we can understand what is happening and not become discouraged over something that is just the way things are. It is not good when we fall into the same old sins but Christians do not need to then begin thinking they are not converted or do not have the Holy Spirit. It means the switch is in the wrong position. As Christians we need to try to keep the switch on but we should not be surprised when we see the same old self Page 50
because it is unreasonable to expect the old self to change. It must die and Jesus Christ must live. But wait! Doesn't this switch analogy revert Christianity to something we do, i.e., keeping the switch in the on position? No – it is the same principle we discussed in the section on true overcoming and the purpose for our struggles. The switch can only be flipped on by God. We can resist it but we cannot cause it and we cannot sustain it. The analogy of a nursing newborn helps here. A newborn has no power to draw itself to its mother's breast. The mother draws the child. Once there, the baby can refuse to suckle. However, even if the infant chooses to suckle, if milk does not flow from the mother or if the mother withdraws, there is no nourishment – no life. Those episodes when the switch goes off remind us of our complete weakness – our utter inability to draw ourselves to God's life. It reminds us of our inability to sustain the "godly switch" in the on position without God. As we come to understand God, ourselves, our death, and our new life, we come to see more and more profoundly how we are nothing apart from God. By ourselves, we can neither turn on the switch nor keep it on.
The Centrality of Christ
Once again we see why Christ is central to Christianity. Without Him there is no Christian growth, there is no new creation, there is no transformation, there is no Christianity. The centrality of Christ to Christianity is symbolized in one of the most important of Christian practices. Communion (or the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist as it is variously called) commemorates the institution of the new covenant through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. I Cor 11:23-26 (NIV) This sacrifice of the ultimate Passover Lamb is given for the forgiveness of our sins. "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace." Eph 1:7 (NIV). "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." I John 1:7 (NIV). Without Christ’s sacrificial death, we could not even begin. Yes, perhaps Christ could live in us and bring us to righteousness but nothing could be done for our sins of the past. But a sacrifice is not over with the death of the victim. Once the victim is sacrificed, it provides food for the participants in the sacrifice. Notice what God commanded the Israelites to do on the very first Passover – the night of deliverance from both death and slavery: Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening. Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them. They shall eat Page 51
the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. (Ex 12:5-8 RSV) The lamb was sacrificed; the blood was used as a covering for protection from the death angel. But there was still more. The lamb's body was not thrown away but rather eaten to provide nourishment for the journey from slavery to freedom. And so it is with the Lord's supper. The sacrifice not only protects us from the eternal death our sins have earned but we then eat the sacrifice for the nourishment and strength needed for the journey from the slavery of selfishness and sin to the freedom of divine, selfless love. We need both parts of this sacrifice. What good is forgiveness of our sins if we have no way of escaping our slavery – that which caused us to sin in the first place. We would simply continue to fall into the same old sins. In the book of Romans, Paul explains how both aspects of Jesus' sacrifice work together: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Rom 5:8-10 (NIV) The death of Jesus justifies and reconciles us but it alone cannot save us. It is Christ’s life, Jesus Christ living in us, that saves us from what slew us at first. Jesus living in us changes us from our sinful human nature into the perfect divine nature. His life in us allows us to flip the "godly switch" on. We are saved by Christ’s life – His life in us. We are forgiven by His death. We need both. Together, they present to mankind an opportunity beyond imagination. His death reminds us of the enormity of sin and effects our forgiveness; His life makes us members of His body. "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." I Cor 10:16-17 (NIV). We are Christ’s hands, feet, and mouth on Earth. We are His body because He lives in us. This was the whole point of Jesus' controversial discourse in John 6. In this chapter, the people ask Jesus for a sign. They recount how Moses was shown to be a man of God by providing manna, a supernatural food, for the people. Jesus responds by saying the manna was not the true bread from heaven but that the Father gives the true bread from heaven. He said the Israelites ate the manna, the first bread from heaven, and died but anyone that eats of the bread He gives will live forever. He then drops the bombshell on them. He says He is that true bread from heaven: ‘I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever Page 52
eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.’ John 6:48-58 (NIV) Physical bread gives us physical sustenance. Without physical food, we would die physically. Jesus Christ gives us spiritual sustenance. Without the bread of Jesus Christ, we would die spiritually. Without Christ we are hopeless. Our sins would not be forgiven and, even if they were, we would have no way to stop sinning. Notice this powerful section of Romans where Paul laments over the seemingly hopeless state of a sinful nature he cannot change on his own only to then exult in the deliverance Christ brings through both His death and His life: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. Rom 7:24-8:14 (NIV) Notice several points here. Paul states that the old covenant law was powerless because it was external. It did not change the inside of a person. Even though the law was good and pointed toward righteousness, the sinful nature still sinned because it was sinful. The carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God because it cannot think as God thinks; it cannot feel as God feels; it cannot act as God acts and it cannot be as God is. It is innately selfishly disposed whereas God is innately selfless. Our rescue comes from Christ living in us. It is those who are lead by the Holy Spirit, those who have God living in them who are the children of God. Once again we see that Christianity cannot occur without Jesus Christ. We need both aspects of His sacrifice. Page 53
The duality of Jesus' sacrifice pertain to the two parts of the new covenant: ‘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.’ And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body . . . Heb 10:16-20 (NIV) I have broken this quotation in the middle of a thought to emphasize the correlation between the duality of the sacrifice (death and sustenance) and the promises of the new covenant. Notice that the new covenant involves both God writing His law on our hearts (changing the way we are) and forgiving our sins. We are reconciled by the blood of Christ but have a new way opened to us by his body. The shedding of His blood brings us the forgiveness of the new covenant. The participation in His body brings us the transformation of the new covenant. We become part of His body as He lives in us. Without Christ, there is neither forgiveness nor transformation. Without transformation, there is no Christianity. Can we now see with even greater clarity how central to Christianity Jesus Christ is? It is not just because He gives it His name. It is because He makes it happen. Christianity IS Christ living in us. Without Him, Christianity does not happen. Now some of Jesus' statements about Himself make more sense. "Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’" John 14:6 (NIV). Of course we can only come to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the only way for us to be transformed into the divine nature. "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." John 15:5 (NIV). Of course we can do nothing apart from Christ. We cannot transform ourselves. We can only die. Jesus Christ MUST live in us for us to be Christians. Christianity does not happen because we joined a church, accepted Jesus Christ as our savior, or because we were baptized. We are Christians only if and when Jesus Christ lives in us (Rom 8:9b,14). "Therefore Jesus said again, ‘I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.’" John 10:7-9 (NIV). Yes, of course Jesus is the only way into Christianity. If He does not live in us, we have not entered His pasture. Only when He lives in us are we His. Jesus Christ is central to the entire Christian phenomenon. Without Christ, there is no Christian transformation, no change from selfish good and evil to selfless, godly love, and no change from the human to the divine. Without Christian transformation, there is no Christianity. Christianity IS Jesus Christ living in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is Christ in us through the Holy Spirit that changes us from our human insanity to God’s sane way of being.
How Does a Christian Grow?
Now that we have come to see the importance of Christ, Christian transformation, and the role of the Holy Spirit in the transformation process, we are left with the question of how does a Christian use this information. How does a Christian work with the Holy Spirit to be transformed? How do Christians let Jesus Christ live in them? How does a Christian grow? The Page 54
Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit does no matter what we do but better that we work with Him than against Him! Here is the fundamental point of this chapter: Christians are transformed through following the lead of the Holy Spirit. The more we follow what the Holy Spirit tells us, the deeper our transformation will be. We grow in Christianity in proportion to what we put into it. "‘Consider carefully what you hear,’ he [Christ] continued. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more.’" Mark 4:24 Why do I say this applies to Christian growth? Let’s look at the overall flow of Mark 4. Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: ‘Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.' Mark 4:1-8 (NIV) In verse 14, Christ begins explaining what He means by this parable: 'The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.' Mark 4:14-20 (NIV) The subject here is growth. The word is planted in Christians so that there may be growth but what does Christian growth have to do with the next three verses? He said to them, ‘Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don't you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Mark 4:21-23 (NIV) Then what do lamps and lamp stands have to do with the next two verses? ‘Consider carefully what you hear,’ he continued. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’ Mark 4:24-25 (NIV) In the parable of the sower and the seed, Christ shows that Christians produce fruit; there is growth in the life of a Christian. But what is the form of this fruit? In what does a Christian increase? Why, in the things that Christ would do. Christians grow in the fruits of the Holy Page 55
Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). They grow in Christian works (Eph 2:10, James 2:14-17). These are the things others see – the lamp on the lamp stand. This growth, alluded to in the parable of the sower and the seed, is the fruit of Christianity – the fruits and good works that come with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – the things that shine in a world of darkness to show what Christianity truly is. How do we grow in these fruits that shine for all the world to see? Christ gave the answer in Mark 4:24-25; the more we put into Christianity the more we will have to give. I surmise this is why these several seemingly unrelated sayings of Christ are juxtaposed. Together they make a powerful and exceedingly useful point for Christians. Christians grow by following the Holy Spirit’s lead. The more we follow, the more we will grow. A similar situation is presented in the famous parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Although its purpose is not to show that we grow in proportion to what we put in to Christianity, it does strongly make the point that we must work with what we have been given, namely, the Holy Spirit. ‘Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.' His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!' The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.' His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!' Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.' His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'' Mat 25:14-30 (NIV) We could make the analogy of a tool kit. God has given every Christian a tool kit to build Christian works. This tool kit is the Holy Spirit living within us. Now, we can walk around all day with our tool kit in our hand saying, “Yup, I’ve got a tool kit. Here it is all shiny and nice. I Page 56
have a saw and a hammer and a screwdriver and some wrenches. Yup, I’ve got a tool kit. Doesn’t it look nice?” The problem is if all we do is talk about our tool kit and carry it around with us but do nothing with it, then we have the tool kit in vain. In our hands, the tool kit is worthless. We need to be doing things with the tool kit. We need to be building houses and playgrounds and toys and gifts. We render our tool kit useless if we refuse to do anything with it. It is better to give it to someone who will use it. God has given us a tool kit. Are we using it to build or just vainly talking about it? God has given us the priceless gift of the Holy Spirit. We need to be using it. Christians grow by using it. But we still have not really answered the important question. How do we use God’s Spirit?
How Christians Use God’s Spirit
How does the Holy Spirit act inside Christians? Notice Rom 8:14 ". . . because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." The Holy Spirit leads Christians but toward what does it lead? ". . . who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." Titus 2:14 (NASB) "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Eph 2:8-10 (NIV) The Holy Spirit leads Christians towards good works but not just any good works. The Holy Spirit leads us towards good works according to a specific formula. The Holy Spirit leads us toward good works the way God does good works, that is, without looking for anything for Himself in return. The Holy Spirit leads us toward good works motivated by totally selfless love. But how does the Holy Spirit do this? The Holy Spirit leads us the same way the human spirit within us leads us. Remember I Cor 2:11 (NIV) "For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God." How do we think and feel and act like a human? We have a little voice inside us (for lack of a better term) that tells us to do this, that provokes us to do that – an impulse that leads us to do some other thing – we hear the voice of the human spirit. When one receives the Holy Spirit, one starts hearing in stereo! Christians have two voices, two impulses, within them. We have the human voice which directs us as it always used to and we have the voice of God leading us and instructing us in how to live our lives in a godly manner. We will begin to live for doing what God tells us to do. How does God tell us what to do? Through the Holy Spirit within us. I hate to describe the lead of the Holy Spirit as a voice within us or an impulse. If we are running around hearing voices in our heads, we may have a more serious problem than just not knowing how to follow the Holy Spirit! I also do not want to lead Christians into being highly impulsive people. But these are the best terms that I can find to describe the way the Holy Spirit leads. Just like we have a little voice in our heads or an impulse or feeling that says do something or act a certain way or react in a particular manner or think a certain thought, so we now have another voice that says do something or act a certain way or react in a particular manner or think a certain thought. There may or may not be a difference in what we do but there will certainly be a difference in why we do it.
The voice of God within us will not lead us to do good works out of a sense of obligation. This would be acting out of fear, namely, if we do not do the good deed, we will lose something – reward, salvation, happiness, whatever we think is the reward of good deeds. As Christians we know that perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18). The Holy Spirit does not motivate out of fear or obligation or responsibility because that is not how God is motivated. The voice of God within us will lead us to do good works because it is our loving nature to do them – because the voice just comes along and says, “Go ahead and do that good deed because it is there to be done.” It may lead us to the monumental or the minuscule. It may lead us to rush into a burning building to save a child or to hold the door open for someone we see coming. The Holy Spirit may provoke us to willingly lay down our life for another or to brush our teeth so that our breath does not smell and make the environment unpleasant for others. The common denominator is that the motivation is not reward for the self. The motivation in all cases is God’s selfless love which He has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). This voice, this impulse from God must pervade a Christian’s entire life. It must capture our every thought. "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." II Cor 10:5 If the inspiration to do a good work is not motivated out of selfless love, it is probably not the voice of God. Let’s suppose our neighbors’ roof is damaged in a storm. We might be motivated to go over and help them. If our motivation is that we may need help ourselves someday so we better help them now, then it is most likely not the voice of God’s Holy Spirit leading us. If we think to ourselves, “let’s go over there so we can be a Christian light and maybe, just maybe, they might come into our church,” it may or may not be the voice of God. If the idea is to get one for our church like another feather in our cap, then our thinly veiled selfishness is not to the glory of God. If the idea is to bring them into the church so they may find reconciliation with God and true fulfillment in their lives, that may be a lot closer to what God wants. Of course, there may be no reasoning at all in our minds. We may just feel inspired by the Holy Spirit to go over to help because there is a need and we love our neighbor. Indeed, this could be the voice of God. Christians must be careful to evaluate the voice they hear or the impulse they feel to be sure it is wise and consistent with God’s will. We do not want to let our desire to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit be used by Satan as a way of deceiving us into evil or harm. For example, we might have a thought that to serve some person we know who is experiencing a great deal of sexual tension, we should commit fornication with them. This might seem to be selflessly loving but certainly flies in the face of what the scriptures consistently show as God’s will in this matter. We might feel motivated to stop and help someone whom we see broken down along the side of the road but, depending on where we are, this could be a very dangerous thing to do. It could very easily be a setup for someone to do us harm. The wise thing to do may be to not stop and help but rather stop further down the road and call for help for them. Perhaps this sounds terribly subjective. Maybe it seems too wishy-washy. One may think this approach is lacking in clearly defined right and wrong but this is truly the heart and core of daily Christian life. It is a way of life that develops over time. It takes wisdom and experience and is an ongoing process. Christianity is a lifelong experience of continual growth in our ability to wisely follow God’s lead in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, Christianity has clearly defined areas of right and wrong but they neither define Christianity nor comprise the bulk of daily Christian living. Page 58
The majority of the Christian life is not spent in titanic struggle with the most horrible of sins. We do not usually spend seventeen hours a day struggling against the temptation to commit adultery or murder. We spend the bulk of our Christian lives in little decisions – decisions that must be made from God’s selfless love and not from a humanly selfish perspective. These are the kind of actions which are not necessarily right or wrong in themselves but are right or wrong in how and why we do them. Do we help the elderly woman carry her packages to the car because we hope she will give us a tip or because we feel God’s love towards her that expresses itself in service? Do we say a kind word to our superiors at work because we want to get ahead and climb the corporate ladder or because we see their discouragement and truly want to encourage them because we care about them? Do we clean the house before our dinner guests arrive because we want to impress them and exalt ourselves or because we want the environment and their dinner experience to be pleasant because we have the love of God toward them within us? This is where the real day to day battle of Christianity is (“we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” II Cor 10:5) and it does not have clear lines of right and wrong based upon action. The lines of right and wrong are defined by whether we are doing the action out of human selfish motivation or godly love – whether we are following the human spirit or the Holy Spirit – whether we are participating in human nature or the divine nature (II Peter 1:4). Christianity is not so much found in what we do as in why we do. We may wish to have Christianity defined by clearly drawn lines of right and wrong actions but I am afraid it just is not so. Christianity is not defined by clearly delineated right and wrong actions. The old covenant was defined by clearly delineated right and wrong actions; Christianity is not. Christianity is defined by right and wrong hearts – by whether we are following our selfish human spirits or God’s selflessly loving Holy Spirit. A right heart will generally produce a right action. Christians who are truly following the lead of the Holy Spirit are not apt to be indulging in adultery and murder (my understatement is intentional; of course they would not be). Yet, those who insist on defining Christianity by actions instead of hearts, by law instead of the Holy Spirit, answer me this: did Abraham sin when he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac? Was God tempting Abraham to sin when He commanded him to sacrifice his son? Our model of Christianity must accommodate the most extreme examples of God’s actions. A model of Christianity defined by actions has a real problem with this extreme action. God forbids both murder and child sacrifice as actions yet He asked Abraham to do this. A model of Christianity based upon a heart that follows God’s will through the lead of the Holy Spirit easily accommodates this action as an expression of true Christianity even though the actual deed does not appear Christian. It is easier to have clearly delineated right and wrong actions to define our way of life but that is not Christianity. That is why this sounds so subjective, so wishy-washy, so hard to apply on a consistent basis. Christianity is subjective. It requires wisdom, not just pharasaical selfdiscipline. Just following rules merely takes discipline. Following rules does not require a right heart – the most sinful heart can adhere to right actions if it will be sufficiently rewarded. Following rules does not require wisdom yet wisdom is espoused as a vital Christian virtue. Following rules requires neither Christ nor the Holy Spirit. The Pharisees were very good at it. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us in this subjective way that is so vulnerable to abuse. It is easy to abuse Christian freedom to indulge the self but when we are guided by the Holy Spirit, we see through our selfishness and we begin to view the world as God does. We begin to choose our actions as God does. It takes experience; it takes growth; it takes wisdom; it takes growing in our ability to use God’s spirit by following its lead. Page 59
One might say that growing in the power of the Holy Spirit is like having one’s ears tuned to His voice. At first maybe we can only hear the Holy Spirit when it screams at us. “STOP, SULLIVAN; DON’T DO THAT; IT’S SIN!!!!!” As we respond to Him more and more, we can begin to hear Him when He speaks to us in a normal voice. “You have a problem with vanity, John” or “You should really spend more time with your children.” As we continue to yield to it, as we become more and more accustomed to being tuned in to the voice of God speaking to us, we can even hear it when it whispers. “Psst, John, go hold that door open for that person” or “Psst, go do the dishes for your wife; she can really use a break tonight.” This may seem silly and trivial but remember that Christianity must make every thought subject to Christ. Christians must leave behind the human nature and participate in the divine nature. Christians must never stop being Christians; they must be Christians twenty-four hours a day and most of our twentyfour hours a day are spent in the trivial. Yes, Christ lives in a Christian’s life in everything from the monumental to the trivial. In fact, we must not underestimate the damage of those little selfishnesses. Any selfishness, whether a small overtly selfish act or omission or one veiled under the guise of religion, piety and spirituality, is a departure from God. Only that which is perfect as God is perfect will dwell in the presence of God for eternity. Only that which is perfect as God is perfect will share in the divine nature. Anything less renders us unworthy of God. When we begin to see how damaging and sinful even our little selfishnesses are, we begin to see how ugly and hellish most of the world really is. We also begin to see how precious and beautiful those rare glimpses of true holiness are. We begin to understand the awesome beauty of holiness, the beauty of God and what He holds out to us. How polluting are these small selfishnesses. Despite their seeming triviality to our perception – deadened and calloused by the cesspool of selfishness which has become normal to us – they turn perfection to imperfection and make us unworthy of God. We would do well to readjust our sense of normal. Anything that is not perfect, selfish love is abnormal and unacceptable. How merciful God is. What is trivial to us is abominable to Him and yet He not only patiently endures us but loves us and gives Himself to us constantly. Oh for the day when all in Heaven and Earth praise and thank Him for His mercy, for His beauty, for His holiness, and His love by which He offers all of this to us. But I am digressing. The point is, even if this portrayal of Christianity in the little decisions of every day life seems wishy-washy and subjective, those little, wishy-washy, trivial selfishnesses are not trivial. They are ugly and polluting and render us unworthy of God. That is why they are the heart of the Christian Journey. If we are free of those little selfishnesses, we are likely free of major sin. If we are not free of those little selfishnesses, we are not at the end of the Christian Journey.
Following the Holy Spirit Takes Away the Veil
As we follow the voice of God in our lives, we begin to think and feel more and more like God does even in trivial circumstances. As we do, the veil that blinded us in the past is removed. We discussed how the Bible uses the image of a veil to describe the human inability to think like God. We saw that even as God gave His law to the Israelites, He lamented the fact they really could not live by it. "Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!" Deut Page 60
5:29 (NASB). As the Holy Spirit works in our lives to transform the way we think, feel, and act, it carries us across the chasm that separates man and God. "‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’" Isa 55:8-9 Without the Holy Spirit, our minds are hostile to God’s way of thinking. To the carnal mind, it seems insane. It is not even possible for the carnal mind to think as God does. ". . . because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so" Rom 8:7 (NASB). Once the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, that veil is taken away as we are transformed. "But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." II Cor 3:16-18.
Following the Spirit Produces Increase
The more we follow God’s spirit, the better able we are to discern when God is talking to us versus when our own selfish human nature is talking to us. Like most things, the more we follow, the better we become at following. Let’s return to our tool kit analogy from earlier in this chapter. Once God has given us His tool kit, He does not want us standing around like the servant with one talent. He does not want us to just stand around admiring the tool kit. He wants us to use it. As we use it, we produce all kinds of increase – houses, boats, toys, playgrounds. The more we build with our tool kit, the more skilled we become at using it. God’s spirit in us produces increase. God uses the analogy of water for the Holy Spirit. Once He blesses us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, He does not want us to keep it in a bottle and just look at it. He expects the water placed inside us to grow into a flowing, life-giving stream. Notice how Jesus described the water He gives to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. “. . . but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." John 4:14 (NIV) A few chapters later, John gives another account of Jesus illustrating the Holy Spirit with water. Once more we see that when we have been blessed with the Holy Spirit, it is to become an outward stream flowing from us toward others. "Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified." John 7:37-39 (NASB). During the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, the priests would draw water from the pool of Siloam and pour it out at the base of the altar. Some looked at this ceremony as a request for rain during the coming year. Others related it to Ezekiel 47 and the time when water would flow from the temple to restore the Earth. Whatever the priestly purpose for this ceremony, Christ used the occasion to illustrate the action of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life. Although the punctuation of the scripture could make the rivers of living water flow from either Christ or the believer, most interpreters render it as flowing from the believer. This is consistent with John 4:14.
When Christ gives us the Holy Spirit, He does not expect it to sit and stagnate. He expects it to erupt into an unending, outflowing stream. The Holy Spirit should continually flow from the Christian, producing fruit and works toward others. The more in tune we are with the lead of the Holy Spirit, the more unhindered its operation in our lives will be – the more freely its fruit will flow from us. The more we listen and obey its lead, the more sensitive we will become to its lead. Wait a second! Isn't this bringing us back to a Christianity which is defined as something we do – something from within ourselves? No, not really. As we come more and more to the complete destruction of ourselves and new life in Christ, we see that both the grace of hearing the voice of God and the grace of responding to the voice of God come from God. We can resist all on our own but we cannot create the voice nor respond to it as God would have us respond. Using our own strength, we can only get in the way.
Following Versus Quenching the Spirit
The first thing we must do to grow in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, to be more transformed into the divine nature, is to listen for the voice of God’s spirit in our lives. Once we hear it, we are presented with a choice. We can listen to it, yield to God's grace, and do what it is provoking us to do or we can ignore it. If we obey its provocation and allow God's grace to work within us, we will not only do the will of God in our lives but will become more skilled at listening to God’s spirit the next time it leads us. If we disobey, we are dulling our ears. I think that most who have walked the Christian walk have experienced quenching the Holy Spirit despite Paul’s admonition against it. "Do not quench the Spirit." I Th 5:19 (NASB). How often have our thoughts gone something like this: “Oh I know I should go over and visit the lonely widow down the street but I’d rather relax and watch TV,” or, “I know I should go and serve at the homeless shelter on Monday nights . . . . after football season is over,” or perhaps, “I know I shouldn’t spread this juicy piece of gossip but I just won’t pass along all the details . . . . just a few – after all, if someone else knows about it, they can pray about it.” Although these examples may be humorous, quenching the lead of the Holy Spirit is deadly serious business. When we ignore the Holy Spirit speaking to us, we become less able to hear it in the future; our ears become dull to God as we tune Him out. When we do this, we stop growing as Christians. This is more than a matter of just not growing as much as we could. Christianity is a marvelously positive way of life and God’s relationship with His children is based upon love, not fear. Yet there are serious consequences for those who ignore God and we would not present an accurate picture of Christianity if we do not examine this negative side, too. Let’s look at how James describes quenching the spirit, that is, ignoring God when He speaks to us. "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." James 4:17 (NIV). When we ignore the lead of the Holy Spirit, when we are provoked to do good and we decide to not do it, it is sin. Sin is serious business. Sin leads to death – eternal death. Quenching the spirit is not an option. We cannot take a break from being a Christian. We cannot say, “I don’t feel like following right now; I’m too busy or tired; I’ll follow later.” Sin is not an option for Christians. Ignoring God is painfully serious business. "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” Heb 2:1-3 (NIV) Page 62
Enough of the negative side of things! Let’s return to the enormously positive message of Christianity. What is the extraordinary outcome of diligently growing in the Holy Spirit by following its lead? It is the miraculous transformation that IS Christianity. The more we listen and respond to the voice of God in our lives, the more we will think and feel and act like God. More and more we will develop the divine nature within us. We will begin to think like Jesus Christ as Paul described to the Philippians: If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Phil 2:1-8 (NIV) This is what Christianity is truly all about. This is the real Christian Journey – the miracle that makes Christianity different from a religion. It is not a religion; it is not a philosophy; it is not a moral code. It does not come from within us. It is not changing our lifestyles or attitudes or outlook on life. It is an external process that changes us internally. It is the God who set the universe in motion coming into our very selves and changing us from what we are into what He is. It is the lifelong journey out of selfish, human good and evil into God’s matchless, selfless love. There is no other way for us to truly be able to think as Paul described in the passage above. In the next few verses, Paul told the Philippians how they could think in this unhuman, totally selfless, godly way. "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." Phil 2:12-13 (NIV). Yes, it is God Himself who lives inside us to change us into what He is. There is no other way. We cannot do it ourselves. It is only through Jesus Christ living in us by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to think in this new, unhuman and godly way. Once we begin to think in this new way, once we begin to think and feel and act like God as we can only do by following the lead of the Holy Spirit within us, it changes everything. Christians are able to think in a way that is different from any other people on earth – different from the way we were able to think before receiving the priceless gift of the Holy Spirit. Because we are able to think in a new way, we are able to have a relationship with God we could not have before the Holy Spirit. It fundamentally changes our relationship with God. It enables us to build a relationship that removes the guilt of our sins and shortcomings. It removes the fear that God will cast us aside. It fosters a relationship with God which brings peace of mind beyond understanding and a faith and confidence with God that forever transforms our lives. It allows us to have the kind of relationship with God that God has had within Himself for all eternity. The children of God will have the same loving relationship as between the eternal Father and Son but, to partake of the life of God – the love that exists withing the Godhead itself Page 63
– we must change the way we look at God, the way we interact with God, the way we love God. But that is the subject of the next chapter. Let’s quickly summarize before proceeding.
When we follow the lead of God's spirit we develop the mind of God – all from God's grace. The Holy Spirit is the means of our transformation from selfishness to selflessness. He produces the miracle of conversion. But it does not normally just happen; we must use God's spirit and we use it by following its lead – listening to the voice within us that provokes us to good works for no particular selfish gain. The more we listen to and obey this voice, the faster we will grow to be more like God – the more accustomed we will be to living in God's grace. To be transformed, to become more like God – follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.
On The Road
The Christian Relationship with God
Why Do Christians Follow God?
In the last two chapters, we have seen that Christianity is not a religion, philosophy, moral code, or way of life. It is the phenomenon of God living in Christians through the Holy Spirit. By means of this miracle, we are able to begin thinking, feeling, acting, and being in a different way. We begin to be as God is. We enter the process of being transformed from human, selfish, literally egocentric good and evil into God’s selfless love. This changes everything in our lives including the nature of the relationship we can have with God. Because Christians (those where the Holy Spirit dwells) are capable of thinking in ways other humans (where the Holy Spirit does not dwell) cannot, they can develop and sustain a very different kind of relationship. Why do people usually follow a deity? Many relationships with whatever one considers to be one’s God are based on some form of obligation and reward. Sometimes this is quite blatant and other times it is much more subtle. A belief system will generally propose a set of responsibilities to be followed by the believer, a set of positive consequences for obedience to those responsibilities and negative consequences for disobedience to those responsibilities. Perhaps people obey because they wish to receive an eternal reward in the life to come. Perhaps they obey because they wish to be blessed in this life now. Some obey because it makes them feel happy and fulfilled. Others have a more negative motivation. Perhaps they obey so they will not suffer eternal punishment in the world to come or so God will not get them, punish them, curse them, or zap them in this life. Relationships with one's God are frequently based on obedience so one gets what one wants or does not get what one does not want. Our relationships with our gods are usually selfish and this is no surprise. It is the primary way humans apart from the Holy Spirit think. It is only the miracle of God living in us and changing what we are that makes us capable of consistently thinking in any other way. The exhilarating truth for Christians is that we are capable of thinking in a different way. We are capable of developing a relationship with God based upon His way of thinking, feeling, and being. We can develop the kind of relationship God, the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit have shared for all eternity. By the miracle of God living in us, Christians are capable of developing a relationship with God based upon true, selfless, godly love – a relationship no one but those with the Holy Spirit can have with Him. This is the type of relationship that God desires with His children. He does not want His children cowering in fear of some big stick He carries nor does He want them groveling in submission to get some carrot He is holding out. God seeks an eternally sustainable, loving, familial relationship. We are invited into the same love that has existed within the Godhead between the persons of God for all eternity. This is the crucial point of this last chapter, perhaps the most important in this book – God prefers love to obligation! A Christian’s relationship with God is not a 50/50 relationship. It is not a “you do this for me and I’ll do this for you” relationship. It is a 100/100 relationship. God wants to freely give us everything that is good for us without concern for what He gets in return and our relationship with Him is such that we want to give everything to Him while expecting nothing in return.
The Example of Philemon
I would like to spend a little time in one of the smallest books of the Bible, Philemon, to illustrate this type of relationship and reinforce the point that God prefers love to obligation. This short letter was written by the Apostle Paul to a leading member in the Church at Colossae named Philemon. It is a letter between two very mature Christians that reflects a relationship deeply rooted in the love of God. By observing how Paul and Philemon interact, we can see a mature Christian relationship in action and, thereby, learn a great deal about the relationship we can have with God. First, let’s get a little background. Paul probably wrote this letter while imprisoned in Rome. He is writing to Philemon about another man named Onesimus. Onesimus was one of Philemon’s slaves who had run away and, for some reason, sought out Paul. Sometime between the time he ran away and the writing of this letter, Onesimus converted to Christianity. Paul is now sending Onesimus back to Philemon. Onesimus’ return poses a puzzling situation for both Philemon and Paul. Although Roman slavery was generally much more humane than the slavery of recent centuries with which we are more familiar, it was nevertheless vital to the Roman economy. Consequently, the punishment of a runaway slave was very severe – even crucifixion in some cases. What is Philemon to do with his runaway and now returning slave, Onesimus? One might think he should simply forgive him, but in the Roman world the issue of a runaway slave was not so simple. We might liken it somewhat to employer/employee relationships today. What if one Christian employs another Christian and the employee is guilty of gross misconduct? Let’s say one Christian hires another as a truck driver and finds the Christian truck driver has been driving while under the influence of alcohol. Might not the Christian employer think the responsible action would be to punish his own Christian brother for his serious misconduct as an example to the other employees that no matter what their personal relationship with him might be, driving a company truck while intoxicated is utterly unacceptable? The situation was the same for Philemon – a difficult situation indeed. Paul writes this letter to address the issue of what to do with Onesimus.
Love Pleases; Obedience is Just Expected
Right away we notice the tone of the letter is one of very warm affection. Paul and Philemon deeply love each other as fellow Christians. In verse four, Paul expresses how much he thanks God for Philemon but it is important for us to note for what Paul is thankful. "I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints." Phile 1:4-5 (NIV). Paul is thankful not for Philemon’s obedience but for his love and faith. This is a consistent theme throughout the letters of Paul. Notice the introductions to several of his letters: "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world." Rom 1:8 (NIV). "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints." Col 1:3-4 (NIV). "We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, Page 67
and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." I Th 1:2-3 (NIV). "We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing." II Th 1:3 (NIV). It was not that obedience and right conduct were unimportant to Paul. When obedience broke down, Paul took action such as the case of the Corinthian Christian sleeping with his father’s wife (I Cor 5). The issue is not that right conduct is not important; the issue is that it is expected. Obedience is a given. It is going beyond the level of obedience that brought joy to Paul. Let’s think of our own children. Imagine that our child comes home from school and begins telling us about his day. “Hey, Dad! You would have been so proud of me today. I mean, I didn’t murder anyone at all. I didn’t commit any adultery. Why, I didn’t even steal any automobiles on the way home. Yup, I’m a good boy. Aren’t you proud of me!” In most cases, such a conversation would probably arouse more concern than joy! In contrast, when we see our children demonstrating a sincere love in their actions and words, that is when they put a smile on our faces. As it was with Paul and as it is with our children, so it is with God. We could go to God and say, “Yup, God, you’d be so proud of me; I didn’t commit any murder today; I didn’t commit any adultery today; I didn’t steal today and I didn’t even fall down and worship any other gods” but I do not think this kind of prayer would put a smile on God’s face. Let me be painfully clear lest anyone think I am saying all is love and thus sin and commandments are no longer important. Indeed, if we all loved perfectly, sin and commandments would be irrelevant but the overwhelming majority of us do not love perfectly. In fact, a subtle theme of this book is that many of us do not really understand love at all – at least God's perfect love. As mentioned, it is not that obedience and commandment keeping are unimportant; it is that they are a given. If you are thinking about committing adultery, DON'T. If you are thinking about living together with someone in a sexual relationship outside of marriage between a man and a woman, DON'T. If you are thinking of stealing, murder, gossip, getting drunk, the answer is simple – DON'T! It does not matter how greatly we struggle with sin or how powerfully we are disposed to it. Obedience is still expected. There are no exceptions in Heaven. We will not arrive in Heaven to hear Jesus say, "There's no drunkenness in Heaven except for Suzy who is so genetically predisposed with alcoholics on both sides of the family and an abusive upbringing that we allow her to get drunk and just make sure she walks instead of flies home." No, there are no exceptions to righteousness in Heaven. If, at your final judgment when all things are clear, you are unrepentant about your adultery, fornication, active homosexuality, drunkenness, gossip, gluttony, racism, pride, greed, wife beating, child beating, hatred, lying or any other sin, you are going to Hell. It is that simple. No excuses, no exceptions. Sin through weakness is forgivable and, by God's grace, will always eventually be overcome. Sin through willful choice, refusing to acknowledge that it, indeed we, are wrong, is what populates Hell. It is good that we have grown to understand how people are victims of their genetic and environmental predispositions. Yes, for some of us, addictive behavior, promiscuity, gossip, deceit or anger are non-issues. For others of us, they seem like insurmountable mountains because of genetic and environmental factors such as abuse, trauma or mental illness. We need Page 68
to view those of us who sin grievously with great compassion, understanding and mercy. The struggle against these obvious sins for some of us "sinners" may be far more virtuous than the struggle against lesser sins for the other more seemingly "righteous" of us. The blanket, intolerant, compassionless condemnation of sinners should be relegated to an ugly past. It was ignorance at best and piously gilded hatred, judgment, vanity or redirected guilt at worst – frequently greater sin than the sin being condemned! However, just because a sinful behavior is understandable does not make it excusable. The sinful behavior still has destructive consequences for others. In our growth toward understanding ourselves as victims (the impact of others' sins upon us), we sometimes forget we are also perpetrators (the impact of our sins upon others). Indeed, when we look upon sins – our own or those of others – we must remember sinners are both victims and perpetrators. Whatever the sin, from suicide to abuse to drunkenness to hatred to greed, we sinners are both victims and perpetrators. As victims, we need God's compassion, patience and understanding. As perpetrators, we need God's mercy, forgiveness and grace and we must repent and resolve to stop victimizing others. Yes, sin is real and thus Hell, commandments, law and obedience are real. Returning to our subject, with God, obedience and right behavior are givens – they are expected – but God wants us to move beyond that level of relationship. He does not rejoice in a relationship stunted at obedience alone just as that is not what made Paul rejoice in the case of Philemon, the Romans, the Colossians or the Thessalonians. Like Paul, God rejoices when He sees us growing in love and faith – when He sees us growing into a different level of relationship than obedience alone. Indeed, faith and love are closely interwoven. True faith does not spring from a mathematical understanding of God. True faith flourishes when we understand God’s wisdom and power as it flows toward us through the channel of His mercy and love. Faith trusts God’s love for us. True faith grows from a relationship founded on love. That is what puts a smile on God’s face for God prefers love to obligation.
Old Covenant Relationships vs. New Covenant Relationships
In the eighth verse of Philemon, we finally come to the core subject of this chapter. "Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains." Phile 1:8-10 (NIV). Notice that Paul had the authority to simply command Philemon to do what Paul wanted him to do but that was not the way their relationship worked. So it is in our relationship with God. Reckoned strictly by obligation, we must obey God. "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?" Rom 9:20-21 (NIV). "For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him." Col 1:16 (NIV). God certainly has the authority to just command us to obey but that is not the type of relationship He seeks with His people now. It was the type of relationship He had with the Israelites under the old covenant.
The old covenant was based upon obligation. It was a “you do this for me and I’ll do this for you” type of arrangement. The bottom line of the old covenant was that the Israelites were obligated to obey and if they obeyed, God was obligated to give them physical prosperity. Notice the nature of this relationship in the section of scripture where the old covenant was ratified: ‘See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. . . . Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River. I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.’ . . . Moses . . . took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.’ Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’ Ex 23:20-24:8 (NIV) The new covenant, under which Christians operate, is not like that. "‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ‘ declares the LORD.” Jer 31:31-32 (NIV). The new covenant is not like the old covenant. The new covenant is an entirely different kind of relationship with God than the old covenant was. Why? Because Christians with the Holy Spirit are capable of having a relationship with God that the Israelites under the old covenant could not have. As we discussed at the beginning of this chapter, Christians are able to have a relationship with God based upon God’s truly selfless love. Christians are able to miraculously think, feel, and act like God does and hence are able to participate in a god-like relationship – a relationship based entirely on give – entirely on love. God likens His relationship with Christians under the new covenant to a family relationship. "‘I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.’" II Cor 6:18 (NIV). Do we serve our own children out of obligation or out of love? Do we do things for our own children because we have to or because we want to? Sometimes, in our human Page 70
imperfection, we do serve our children out of a sense of obligation but ideally we serve them because we really love them. Which delights us more – to see our children obey us because they have to or because they love us and want to do what we ask? Not only that, but these human relationships are usually founded upon selfish, human love. God’s love for us is never self centered and neither is the relationship He seeks with us. He seeks a relationship fueled by selfless love for each other. Even when God punishes us, it is because He loves us and wants what He knows is best for us: And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. Heb 12:5-10 (NIV) Once again, God prefers a relationship founded upon love, not obligation. After all, what did Christ say were the greatest commandments? Someone asked Jesus this very question. "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’" Mat 22:36-40 (NIV). Please note that all the Law and the Prophets hang on love. It does not matter how much we read them; it does not matter how closely we adhere to the physical commands contained in the Bible; if it is not “hanging” on love, it is hanging on the wrong hook and is useless. All of our commandment keeping does not amount to a hill of beans if it is not based upon love. Commandment keeping is not true commandment keeping if it is only founded upon selfish obedience. It must be rooted in love or it is not truly the Law and the Prophets. Consider how and why you obey. Are you really keeping the Law and the Prophets? If it is not based upon a relationship of love, then you are not. God prefers love to obligation. This is exactly how Paul treats Philemon in verses eight and nine as we saw when we quoted them at the beginning of this subsection. Paul could have ordered Philemon to do what he wanted him to do but that was not the kind of obedience Paul wanted. Paul did not want Philemon to obey because he had to but rather because he wanted to. Paul, like God, preferred love to obligation. It is explicitly on the basis of love that Paul makes his request of Philemon. Paul continues with this theme in verses ten through twelve. "And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will." Phile 1:12-14 (NASB). Paul really wants to keep Onesimus with him but rather than just do so, he sends him back to Philemon with this letter and asks that Onesimus be allowed to return to Paul. Why? Because Paul does not want Philemon to respond because he has to but because he wants to; because Paul prefers a relationship built on love, not obligation. Page 71
Paul describes God in the same way. He says God does not want our response to be out of compulsion. He does not want us to give and serve because we have to but rather because we want to. "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." II Cor 9:7 (NIV). How do we give of our time and money to God? Do we give because we have to or because we want to? God prefers love to obligation. Are we getting the point yet? Once we understand it, it leaps off almost every page of the New Testament.
Love Goes Beyond What is Required
One of the most interesting statements of the letter is found in verse twenty-one. "Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask." Phile 1:21 (NIV). Paul has confidence in his relationship with Philemon. He is so confident of the strength of their love that he knows Philemon will not only obey his request but even go beyond what Paul has requested. Why? Because that is the way love works. It is not thinking of self and asking what is the least I have to do to satisfy the requirement but rather is concerned with the other and wants to do even more than the other asks. That is the way God is toward us and the way we should be toward God. When we are thinking, "What must I do," we are thinking outside the bounds of Christianity. Christians do not ask, “what must I do” but rather, “What can I do.” Christians do not have to; Christians want to. If we start asking, “what do I have to do” then we are no longer thinking like Christians. This understanding of what is a Christian way of thinking and what is not helps to resolve one of Christianity's more divisive and acerbic arguments, namely, where does the law of God fit into Christianity. Virtually all Christian churches will teach Christians are saved by grace and humans cannot earn salvation. The problem arises when one looks at the many scriptures which show Christians also keep the law and commandments of God. To reconcile this apparent contradiction, many begin to put conditions upon receiving God’s grace. The “law party’s” argument is basically: God’s grace is a gift humans cannot earn but God will not give this gift to those who refuse to obey His law. The “grace party” responds by saying this is only a semantic argument and still amounts to salvation by works, that is, we have to do works in order to put ourselves in a position to receive God’s grace. This whole argument is a sterling example of how a clear understanding of what Christianity is and how Christians should think neatly resolves most of the difficult issues which divide Christianity. When we try to approach Christian issues from a human mindset, we will inevitably find ourselves perplexed with logical contradictions. We must approach Christian issues with a godly mindset. We must approach these issues within the bounds of Christian thinking, not human thinking. Let me put forth two questions. Do Christians keep the law of God? Do Christians have to keep the law of God? The answer to the first question is absolutely, unequivocally, dogmatically yes. The scriptures are full of statements which show Christians keep the law of God. The second question is more problematic. First, the question is incomplete. What do we mean when we say do Christians have to keep the law? What we really mean is, “Do Christians have to keep the law in order to _______” and then we must fill in the blank. Typically we fill in the blank with “to receive salvation.” Page 72
If we insist on asking this question, then we must answer, “No, Christians do not have to keep the law of God in order to receive salvation.” David broke the law of God as did Moses. What about you? All who live in the weakened human state have broken the law of God. If we say Christians must keep the law of God in order to receive salvation then we leave no room for forgiveness but this is not the real problem. The real problem with this question is that it is not a question a Christian would ask. It is outside the bounds of Christian thinking. The Christian relationship with God does not think in these terms. The Christian mind does not ask, “What do I have to do to get what I want from God.” Christians led by the Holy Spirit do not have to; they want to. They do the things of God and walk in the ways of God because they want to. The law of God is an expression of God’s love. It is an expression of what God is and does. If Christians are thinking and acting as God thinks and acts, then they will be doing the things God does and will be keeping the law by nature and desire and not because they have to in order to get something. Christianity is not the way of get; it is the way of give. Like the relationship between Philemon and Paul, Christians do not want to do only what God requires but to do even more than God asks. How sad it must make God when His children try to do only what is required of them. He must ask Himself, “Do they really love me or are they just doing what they need to do to save their own skins.” That certainly is not how God behaves toward us. He did not have to give us life. He did not have to make our sustenance – food, drink and reproduction – pleasurable. He did not have to send Jesus Christ to die for us. He did not have to do any of that. He gave us so much because He wanted to, not because He had to. Jesus, Himself, did not have to stay and endure the crucifixion. With every lash of the whip, every mocking blow of the guards, every exhausted step under the weight of the cross, every agonized breath as He suffocated to death with no relief from the pain, He was free to choose to leave. He could have stopped it at any time, washed His hands of us and our failings, destroyed the universe in the blink of an eye and started over again. But he didn't. He freely chose to stay. If one stops to think of it, Jesus Christ did not really have to suffer in order for our sins to be forgiven. He did it that way for us – because love goes above and beyond. God could certainly have granted all mass pardon. He could have forgiven us without sacrifice. He could have found some other way to satisfy the demands of His justice. He certainly has all power and authority to do so. God makes all the rules; He defines reality and is not bound by our logic. But to impress upon us the enormity of sin, to help us realize how awful the consequences of sin are, to teach us true love and help us understand the inseparable relationship between love, freedom and suffering in the school of love called Earth, He sent His son to suffer horribly for our sins. He did not have to. He did it for us. God did not need to come to Earth and suffer in order to understand what it is like to be a human. I am sure that God can understand that without being made flesh. If not, then we must be willing to admit that God lacks understanding and there is something He cannot do. God could understand our predicament but would we have believed He could understand us if He did not come and suffer as one of us. He did not come for His understanding but rather for our understanding. Because Christ suffered, it is easier to believe He understands us. God did not have to do it this way. He did not have to suffer so much. He did so for our sakes. He did so because He was not concerned with what He had to do but rather, in perfect freedom with no concern for Himself, loved us and chose to serve us. Love goes above and beyond. Love wants to rather than has to. Page 73
Human love, all on its own, also goes above and beyond. It also does because it wants to, not because it has to. Parents without the Holy Spirit can serve their children in this way. Husbands and wives apart from the Holy Spirit can treat each other this way. However, as we discussed in the first chapter, even though this is good, it is either an unsustainable glimpse of the original good God put in us or is rooted in the self. God’s love transcends even this most noble of human affections. God’s love depends upon Him alone. God loves because He is love. His love does not depend upon us but rather upon Him. Therefore, God’s love can endure forever. His loving relationships never die. He loves us no matter what the potential loss to Himself. It is a relationship founded upon this kind of love that God desires with Christians. God prefers a relationship based upon eternal, selfless love rather than selfish obligation. With the advent of the Holy Spirit, God is no longer the only being who can be consistently like this (other than, perhaps, the righteous angels). As God lives in Christians by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are able to love this way, too. This is the relationship God seeks with His children – a godlike relationship founded upon God’s selfless love, not a human relationship founded upon obligation rooted in the self. Of all people on Earth, only those wherein the Holy Spirit dwells are capable of sustaining this kind of relationship because it is in them alone that Jesus Christ lives. God expects and enables His children to develop this kind of love and relationship. I would like to quote the first half of the lengthy parable of the sheep and the goats. It demonstrates how God’s children are capable of a love that acts because it wants to not because it has to. It shows how Christians act out of love, not obligation: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' Mat 25:31-40 (NIV) One striking feature of this first half of the parable is how the righteous are totally surprised by their reward! They had no idea they were actually serving Jesus Christ when they were serving others. As they went about their day to day lives extending the love of Christ within them toward others, they did not do it with the idea of earning a reward. They did not do their good deeds in order to get something from God. The relationship these righteous people had with God and with others was not based upon obligation. They did not act because they had to in order to get their reward. They acted because God in them loved. They are utterly shocked to see they have directly served Christ all these years and are now to receive a reward. The reward comes to them because God loves them. Their service to others comes because they love. There is not a direct link between the two. Godly love loves because it is love, not to get. This is the way God loves. This is the way His children love. God prefers love to obligation. Page 74
God Does Not Keep Score . . . . Thankfully!
"Out of the depths I call to you, LORD; Lord, hear my cry! May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, LORD, mark our sins, Lord, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness and so you are revered." (Ps 130:1-4 NAB) Ah, how eloquently the psalmist describes where a relationship with God based upon obligation would land us. It is a good thing for us that our relationship with God is not based upon obligation. Stop and think about it. There is nothing we do not owe God. We owe Him everything. We owe Him every righteousness. We could never put God in a position where He would owe us anything. Jesus himself discussed this in Luke 17: Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' Luke 17:7-10 (NIV) We can never put God in a position where He owes us, yet many of us live our lives as if God is keeping score. “Yes, there’s a good deed; oops two sins; oh, there are two good deeds to make up for the two sins; uh-oh, two more sins; there’s one good deed; oh no, two more sins – now I owe God two righteous acts.” No, this does not work at all. First of all, good deeds do not make up for sins. God expects every righteousness. If God was keeping score, we could only fall short. Secondly, it is just not the way God relates to Christians. If we are thinking like this, we are not thinking as Christians. Christians do not do good deeds to score points with God. We do not do righteous deeds to make up for where we fall short (other than in the sense that our putting good into the world helps counteract the evil we have put into the world). Christians do not eschew sin because God is recording when they stumble. Christians refrain from sin because sin hurts God and others. Christians refrain from sin because sin is not what God does; it is the opposite of God's love. Christians do the works of God because they are godly – because God lives in them. God does not want an accounting relationship. He is not keeping a ledger card of our sins and righteous deeds. God simply cherishes every right deed and forgives every sin. He is not keeping score. Keeping score of our sins and righteousnesses implies a relationship of obligation. God does not want a relationship of obligation. God wants a relationship that is not worried about the mathematics of the relationship. God wants a relationship of love. God prefers love to obligation. There is a wonderful freedom in this kind of relationship. It is not like being in a dysfunctional family where children are perpetually tormented as they try to please parents who can never be pleased. It is not a family where the members are debilitated by their constant feelings of inadequacy as they stagger under the guilt of always falling short. Do we fall short before God? Yes, all the time. God expects perfection. When we are perfect, we are where God expects. When we are less than perfect, we fall short. We can only fall short; we can never pull ahead. The healing, peace-giving truth is that God knows and understands this.
". . . he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust." Ps 103:10-14 (NIV). The fact that we so continually fall short does not destroy our relationship with God; it does not diminish His love for us. That is just not the way God’s love works. Even though we fall short, God accepts us, helps us toward perfection and does not let it get in the way of His love for us. If anything, it increases our love for Him, our appreciation of His love and mercy, and touches His tender compassion for us. Listen to the words of God Himself in the person of Jesus: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep." I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, "Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin." In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Luke 15:4-10 (NIV) Jesus then continues in the rest of Luke 15 with the famous parable of the prodigal son. I will not take the space to quote the lengthy story but this would be a good time to pause and read it on your own. There we see a father who has every right to be offended and to turn his back on his hurtful, errant son. Instead, he awaits their reconciliation every day and rejoices with all his heart to receive his son home once more. God is not keeping score . . . . thankfully!
Pitfalls of a Distorted Relationship With God
The selfless love of God that can only come from God and returns to God in our proper love for Him, is the only right foundation for a relationship with God. Our relationship with Him may not start there. That's okay. We do not start in perfection. But even though God accepts that our relationship with Him starts on the wrong foundation, we must not stay there. There are several wrong foundations for our relationship with God. Obligation is only one. We may also attempt to build our relationship on a foundation of knowledge, responsibility, or on our own, inadequate, inconsistent, and usually selfish human good. When we collectively build on wrong foundations, we build distorted corporate relationships with God. We can become "The Church of people who do the right things" or "The Church of people who know the right things" or "The Church of nice people" rather than the Church of the children of God who love and worship Him with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. These are not new phenomena. Let's take a look at a few case studies from the pages of the Bible – examples given to us so we can avoid these same ditches. Page 76
Elijah – the responsible man who knew the right things
Elijah is one of the greatest figures of the Old Testament. It is he, along with Moses, who appears with the glorified Jesus in the transfiguration recorded in Matthew 17. Although the translations of his physical appearance vary widely, based upon the accounts from I Kings 17 through II Kings 2, I picture him as a big, burly, hairy, and powerful man with an enormously strong personality. In I Kings 18, He confronts an evil and hostile king face to face. He singlehandedly challenges 450 prophets of Baal, builds an altar, sacrifices a bull all by himself and calls down fire from God to consume the sacrifice. He then hacks to pieces the 450 prophets of Baal after exposing Baal as a false god and pointing the people to the true God. He is a hard man for hard times – a responsible, task oriented, go getter who let nothing stand in the way of his service to God. He was also the custodian of the knowledge of God. He lived in an age when true worship of God had almost faded from memory. The evil Israelite queen, Jezebel, had murdered all the prophets of God and only Elijah was left. He was to turn the hearts of the people back to the knowledge of the true God (I Kings 18:20-22, 36-37) and he succeeded. But all was not right with Elijah, as great a servant of God as he was. God would bring him to the point of suicidal despair to help him see that his relationship with God was on wrong foundations. For neither knowledge nor responsibility can be the basis of our life in God. Only love beats with a living heart – all else is stone. Only the love that comes from God can form the right foundation, for God desires a divine and not a human relationship – a relationship only possible with those in whom dwells the Holy Spirit – those like Elijah. After Elijah slays the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18, all appears victorious and God sends rain upon the drought stricken land of Israel. But as soon as all seems won, Jezebel sends word to Elijah that, as he killed the prophets of Baal, she will kill him within twenty four hours. Elijah is frightened by the sudden turn of events and flees into the wilderness where he falls into what appears to be deep depression. There, in the desert, Elijah laments to God that he is no better than his fathers and, in despair, pleads that God would take his life (I Kings 19:4). How intensely disillusioned Elijah must have been. All the work, all the tasks, all the zeal, all the knowledge, all the display of God’s enormous power seems to have been for naught. I realize I am speculating but it appears to me that Elijah views God as powerful and demanding and Elijah has failed him – he is no better than his fathers. They could not keep Israel from sliding into idolatry and neither could He. Elijah does not perceive God as the font of love and meekness – the Lord who is gentle and humble of heart – whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light (Matt 11:29-30). It is time for God to radically change Elijah’s perspective so He miraculously encourages the exhausted Elijah by having an angel feed him. On the strength of that food, Elijah travels forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb. There, he meets God in a very special way. Elijah enters a cave on the mountain. God comes and asks him what he is doing there. Elijah complains that he has been zealous for God and yet the spiritual state of Israel is a catastrophe – he is the only one left following God and now they want to kill him. Then God decides to show Elijah, the powerful man of God, some power. An enormous wind arises – one strong enough to tear apart rocks on the mountain but God is not in the powerful wind. Then comes an earthquake shaking the mountain itself and yet God was not to be found in the power of the earthquake. Next comes a raging firestorm but God was not in the power of the fire either. At last comes a gentle voice – the gentle voice of God. God speaks once more to Elijah and gives him a plan. Page 77
I am always intrigued by how God dealt with Elijah to teach this knowledgeable, task oriented, powerful, dynamic but harsh man that God is a God of love and humility – to teach him that the knowledge, the power, the tasks are not the foundation of the relationship God wants with him. First there is this enormous display of power but God is not in any of it. Then God comes in a gentle voice. Finally, God tells Elijah to take the people oriented, kind hearted Elisha as his assistant. The way Elijah greets Elisha in I Kings 19:19-20 is almost comical for its gruffness although perhaps it has a meaning lost to our culture. Elisha is plowing with a large team of oxen indicating he is a very wealthy man even after this time of famine. Elijah takes off his cloak, throws it at (or on) Elisha and walks away! But God had chosen a very special man to be Elijah’s servant and ultimate successor. In contrast to Elijah, Elisha appears to be a kind, gentle, loving, people oriented rather than task oriented man. We see this in his immediate response. Recognizing his call to follow Elijah and leave his wealth, he begs permission to say good-bye to his parents but does much more than say good-bye and for more than his parents. He slaughters the oxen, uses the wood of the plows for fuel and gives the meat to the people for food. Throughout Elisha's life, we will see this same care for people displayed over and over. Even though he was one of the greatest servants of God, Elijah had much to learn and God spared no effort to teach Him – to bring Elijah from the relationship of a responsible servant to that of a loving child. If one of God's greatest servants could fall into these ditches, what about us? Is our relationship with God founded upon knowing the right things? Having the right doctrines? Knowing the right rules and regulations or memorizing the scriptures? Right knowledge is a beautiful thing but it will all pass away. "Where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. . . And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." (I Cor 13:9-10,13 NIV). Knowing about God is not knowing God. Since God is love (I John 4:8), we can only know Him when we step into His love. Only this love can be the foundation of a right relationship with Him. Likewise, all our doing, all our responsible actions to do the right thing in God's service cannot form the foundation of our relationship with God. If all our children did was their list of chores and that was all the relationship we had with them, how sad would it be? Then why do we treat God like that? Yes, we must be diligent in His service. Yes, we should want to serve Him with all our might. But that service is the outgrowth of our relationship with Him and not its foundation. Let's learn the lesson of Elijah and join him as a loving child of God. Serve God responsibly. Know what He has to teach us. But above all things, give to Him what He has given to us – His love through the presence of the Holy Spirit, for God prefers love to obligation.
Cornelius – the good man who was not good enough
I must confess that I sometimes find good people are the most difficult to deal with. If we find we are generally good people, we sometimes fall into the unspoken assumption that, since we are good people, everything we do must be good. We become blinded by our own goodness to the possibility that our goodness might not be good enough. If our goodness becomes the basis for our relationship with God, we are blinded and standing on the wrong foundation. Page 78
This appears to be the lesson God had in store for one of the most important men in the history of Christianity – a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius was the very first Gentile convert to Christianity who did not first convert to Judaism. His conversion was a crucial turning point in the history of the Church. Since we have already discussed Cornelius and the problems of our own human goodness in the first portion of this book, we will only briefly review them here. Cornelius was a good man – a very good man and God took note of his goodness. "One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, 'Cornelius!' Cornelius stared at him in fear. 'What is it, Lord?' he asked. The angel answered, 'Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.'" (Acts 10:3-4 NIV) The angel instructs him to send for the apostle Peter. So we see Cornelius is acknowledged as a good man. However, Cornelius' goodness is not good enough. As has been the theme throughout this work, his goodness was inconsistent and primarily selfish. It was not an eternally sustainable good. Cornelius thus still needed to be saved – saved from a good unfit for eternity and made ready to receive eternal life based upon God's good – God's selfless love. A day after Cornelius' vision, while his servants are on their way to get Peter, Peter has a vision where he is told, in effect, to accept that which is unclean – symbolically the Gentiles. Peter, in a radical break with Jewish tradition of the time, agrees to go with Cornelius' servants to meet this good man. Peter and Cornelius meet and probably do not start off particularly well. Cornelius falls down at Peter's feet in reverence. One can almost picture Peter thinking, "Ugh! Gentiles!" as he tells Cornelius to get up and reminds him that Peter is only a man. Peter seems quite awkward but nonetheless shares with Cornelius and all those gathered in his house the events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. As he is speaking, a most remarkable miracle occurs – God pours out the Holy Spirit on the gathered Gentiles. Peter and his fellow Jewish Christians are astounded that God has done this and consequently baptize them and welcome them into the family of God. We find out from Peter's later retelling of the story that it was at this point the good Cornelius was finally "saved" (Act 11:14, 18). Saved from what? From himself, from his selfish human nature, from eternal death because his goodness was still not good enough for eternal life because it was not eternally sustainable. It could not form the basis of the relationship God wants for eternity with His children. How about us? Are we satisfied with our goodness? Does the fact we consider ourselves good people form the basis of our relationship with God? Or have we recognized the weakness and depravity of our own goodness and sought the goodness which can only come from God – the salvation which comes through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Like Cornelius, it is only when we turn from not only our evil but also our selfish good that we can place our relationship with God on a right foundation. Only then can our relationship change from a human relationship to a divine one based upon the love which can only come from God.
Job – the disciplined man who did the right things
No matter how one takes the book of Job, it is a fascinating study in the relationship between God and the believer. The book of Job raises many unsettling questions. Why did God allow such suffering? Job did superlatively good deeds and yet God brought enormous suffering on him. What was God's point? What was wrong in Job’s life? So frequently I hear commentators try to make Job a sinner. They fault him for being selfrighteous. I find this ironic since that is exactly what his friends thought as they sat and criticized him incessantly. God condemns their assessment of God’s treatment of Job in Job 42:7. “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has.” The book explicitly states Job did not sin and even if his problem was self-righteousness, I see nowhere in the Old Testament where selfrighteousness is considered a sin. I propose Job’s problem was he had a deeply distorted view of his relationship with God. God did not punish Job for something he did or did not do. That is why Job could not figure out why all this horror was happening to him. He was looking at deeds. He was looking at the score. He was trying to look at what he owed God and what God owed him and wondered why he was coming out on the bad end of the deal. God, on the other hand, in his love for Job, recognized Job was pursuing a deeply dysfunctional relationship with Him and took extraordinary measures to change it. God wanted a relationship with Job based upon love, not obligation. First, let’s notice Job’s sterling character: In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. His sons used to take turns holding feasts in their homes, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job's regular custom. Job 1:1,4-5 (NIV) Job was meticulously righteous even to the point of offering sacrifices just in case one of his children sinned. This could be extraordinary righteousness or there could be a darker, almost paranoid side to this. We will come to see there was very much a dark side. Later in the book, Job’s wealth and almost all his family are wiped out with God’s explicit permission. Job’s response is noble. Notice his words after losing his wealth and family: At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.’ In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. Job 1:20-22 (NIV) God next allowed Satan to afflict Job with terrible sickness and suffering and yet Job’s response was equally admirable. "His wife said to him, ‘Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!’ He replied, ‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’ In all this, Job did not sin in what he said." Job 2:9-10 (NIV) Page 80
As the account unfolds, however, we find out more about the way Job views his affliction. When some of Job’s friends come to see him, they are astonished at his suffering. They sit together in silence for days and then Job begins to express his innermost thoughts and feelings: After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said: ‘May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, 'A boy is born!' That day – may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine upon it. May darkness and deep shadow claim it once more; may a cloud settle over it; may blackness overwhelm its light. That night – may thick darkness seize it; may it not be included among the days of the year nor be entered in any of the months. May that night be barren; may no shout of joy be heard in it. May those who curse days curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan. May its morning stars become dark; may it wait for daylight in vain and not see the first rays of dawn, for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me to hide trouble from my eyes. Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest with kings and counselors of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins, with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day?’ Job 3:1-16 (NIV) Then Job says something critical to understanding what is going on in his mind. "What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me." Job 3:25 (NIV). Job lived his life in fear. He walked in fear that someday this very thing would happen to him. He walked in fear that someday God would punish him. All his righteousness, all his sacrifices just in case his children sinned – they were all motivated by fear. Job viewed God as someone one keeps off one’s back. It is almost as if Job pictured God as just waiting for an excuse to punish us. He figured if he was perfectly righteous, God would have no excuse to punish him. Job’s relationship with God was founded upon obligation. If Job gave God everything Job owed Him, God would not hurt Job. Fear and obligation – it was like living with an abusive father – "just don’t get him mad and he won’t hurt us." How sad, how cold, how unfulfilling Job’s relationship with God his Father must have been. How sad, cold and unfulfilling is your relationship with God your father? This was not the relationship God desired with Job. This is why God took such extraordinary measures to changes His relationship with His dear child. Finally, after all this suffering, after all this pain, God appears directly to Job. Job began to see; at last he began to get the point. Then Job replied to the LORD: ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.' My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’ Job 42:1-6 (NIV) Job saw that he had entirely missed the point. His view of God was all wrong. To use our earlier vocabulary, he came to profound self-knowledge and thereby the knowledge of God.
God was not keeping score with Job nor is He keeping score with us. God did not necessarily bless Job because of Job’s righteousness nor did He afflict Job because of Job’s sins. God blessed and afflicted Job as was best for Job and for those around him. God blessed Job because He loved Job and God afflicted Job because He loved Job. God did all things for Job because He loved Job. This is the kind of relationship Job eventually came to see. It was not a matter of keeping score. God always did what was best for Job whether it was blessing or affliction. At last, Job came to see and rest in that love.
Our Relationship With God
Our relationship with God needs to be the same. We, too need to come to peace and rest in God's love. With even more certainty, we can say God does not bless us for our righteousness and afflict us for our sins. That was the old covenant. We are not under the old covenant; we are under the new covenant – a different covenant – one that is not like the old covenant (Jer 31:32). God blesses us because blessing is what is best for us and those around us at the time we receive it. God blesses us because He loves us and others. He may bless us to encourage us to walk righteously. He may bless us so we can bless others. He may bless us so we have the wherewithal to accomplish His work. He may bless us because learning how to properly handle blessings is what we need for the next step in our Christian journey toward spiritual perfection. Whatever it is, God blesses us because He loves us and not because we deserve it or have earned it. The same is true with our trials. God does not afflict us because He wants to punish us at every opportunity. God is not menacingly sitting on His throne waiting for us to sin so He can hit us with a lightning bolt. God sends or allows trials on us because He loves us (Heb 12:5-10). God tries us because it is best for us and those around us. He may afflict us to turn us away from sin and toward Him. He may try us so we gain understanding and compassion to help others. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows." II Cor 1:3-5 (NIV). He may try us so we can see ourselves more clearly. He may try us so we learn to trust Him more. He may afflict us because it is what we need for our next lesson on the Christian journey toward spiritual perfection and a more perfect imitation of Jesus' life on Earth (Phili 3:10-11, Rom 8:17, Col 1:24). Whatever the reason, God afflicts us because He loves us. Our relationship with God is no longer one based upon obligation such as it was under the old covenant. God desires and expects something so much more because His children are capable of so much more. By the miracle of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God’s children are capable of relationships not founded upon self – relationships not based upon some kind of behavioral reinforcement. God’s children are capable of relating to God on a godly level. God’s children are capable of approaching their Father with the divine nature; they can relate with God’s love within them. This relationship flourishes in freedom. It frees us from the slavery of asking, "what do we have to do," to pursue the far superior approach of, "what can I do." In this relationship, God gives everything to us not because we have earned it but because He loves us and we give everything to God not because we owe Him everything (although we do) but because we love Him. Page 82
What is the foundation of your relationship with God? Do you approach Him with fear as Job did? Are you trying to do what is right to keep Him off your back? Do you approach Him in guilt – always trying to make up for where you fall short? Do you find yourself asking, “What do I have to do?” Do you find yourself serving God out of responsibility instead of joy? Is your relationship with God one of obligation? If so, it is time to be free of these burdens that are impossible to bear. We can never meet all of our obligations to God but, thankfully, that is not what God seeks of us. Lay that weight of guilt aside. God’s mercy and grace have unshackled us from that burden. Instead, walk into the warmth of God’s love. Although we truly owe Him all things, serve Him because you love him. Serve Him by the power of His love dwelling within you through the Holy Spirit. Your old self has died. Christ living in you gives you the love of God. Build your relationships upon this love. This is the relationship God desires with His children for truly God prefers love to obligation.
So now where do we come out after all of this? What can we conclude about the Christian Journey? Notice we have barely discussed Christian tradition or practice at all. There has been virtually no discussion of morality. There has been very little doctrine or philosophy. All these have their place in the Christian Journey but they are not what Christianity is. As stated at the very beginning, Christianity is not a religion. It is not a tradition although it can have traditions. Christianity is not ultimately about what we do although what we do is important. Christianity is not a moral code although Christians are moral people. Christianity is not doctrine or philosophy. At its most basic, Christianity is not even a way of life. It is the way we are. Christianity is a phenomenon. Christianity is the phenomenon of the God who made us living inside us. It is Christ living inside a human being through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a literal statement. There is another being living inside Christians – Christ Himself. He transforms the very nature of what we are. He changes us from simply thinking as selfish, inconsistent humans to thinking and feeling and acting and being like God because it IS God living in us. This is what Christianity is. This is why we cannot ultimately define Christianity by doctrine, tradition, or practice. God decides where and in whom He will dwell. The Christian phenomenon may take on as many faces as there are Christians. The final, common denominator is that Christ lives in each and every true Christian. It is not calling oneself a Christian, adhering to Christian teaching or philosophy or attending a Christian church. Christians are where Christ is. Once we embark upon the Christian Journey, once Christ actually begins to live inside us, it changes everything. The world is turned upside down (or right side up as the case really is). We approach life from an entirely different, insane (humanly speaking) perspective. We begin to depart from our egocentricity. We no longer can only view the world from behind our own two eyes but are now capable of a new way of thinking. We can now think in truly and abstractly selfless terms. Christians are capable of thinking and feeling like God. This ability to be, to live in a different way opens the door to extraordinary freedom. We are free from ourselves. We are free from the cause of human evils and ills. We are able to transcend both our evil and the shortcomings in our good. The Christian Journey allows us to finally conquer the real cause of human suffering and sorrow. We must come to the point where we recognize we are the problem. We, collectively and individually, are the cause of the pain Page 83
and suffering in our individual lives and in the world as a whole. To truly end the evil and suffering in our world, we must change the very nature of what we are. This is what God offers through the Christian Journey. The Christian Journey is a miracle greater than any other. We can change various things about how we are on our own. We can work on our personalities, refine our manners, and quit bad habits but no matter what we do, we cannot change the nature of what we are. That requires something outside of us. That is the miraculous transformation God offers through Christianity. That is why Christ is essential to Christianity. We cannot transform ourselves. We are transformed as a new entity lives inside us. We are transformed by the miracle of Christ living in us. Where do you stand along Christian Journey? Have you been walking down its path for years? If so, I hope this book has made that path even more clear to you. Have you thought you were on the path only to find you were on another – a selfish, religious path – a path filled with Christian culture but devoid of Christianity? If so, I hope this book points you toward the path of life and transformation. Do you stand apart, gazing at this path? Perhaps you stare at it skeptically, perhaps in wonder, perhaps in fear, perhaps with a flood of conflicting emotions. God invites you down this path. It is a miraculous path of freedom and transformation different from all others. Come and find freedom, rest, peace, answers to the questions of life, a world view that makes sense and a transformation beyond belief. In all the world that has been, in all the world that will be, there is no adventure as great, no life more thrilling, no miracle so profound as the Christian Journey. Come – eternity beckons.
Epilogue and Road Map
I have not been entirely honest. The idea that there is a problem, that Christianity identifies the problem and proposes a solution is an artificial construct to break us away from thinking about Christianity in erroneous but deeply entrenched ways. There is no problem. There has not been some accident God did not anticipate and now needs to fix through the solution of Christianity. The real story is much more beautiful, uplifting, and positive – even more so than what I will say next for who am I to speak for God; I can only share the feeble ways in which I have understood His beauty and magnanimity. The world God has given us is not malfunctioning and in need of a solution. It is working perfectly according to specification and perfectly doing what God intends it to do. Yes, the world is indeed "broken," suffering, and in pain. But the brokenness is not a design flaw nor is it something which God did not anticipate and is now scrambling to fix. The brokenness is part of the plan. This idea is not some John Sullivan invention. I am merely reflecting the thoughts of great theologians throughout the history of Christianity. The words of Thomas Aquinas still echo in many Easter liturgies: "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam" or, as the great fifth century bishop Augustine wrote, "God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to allow no evil to exist" (Enchiridion 27).
God does not have a problem
God does not have a problem; He has a goal and the way the world is working is the path the all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful God knows is the best path to achieve that goal. He has a gift He wants to give us – the gift of beautiful, holy, happy, eternal life – eternal life filled with the perfect, eternally sustainable, and selfless love which He is. We see our preparation to receive this gift being worked out not in spite of the brokenness and suffering of the world but by means of its brokenness and suffering. Listen to the words of the Apostle Paul: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Rom 8:18-22 NIV) The "broken" world is not the object and fixing it is not the goal - the world is the tool and perfecting mankind through its brokenness is the goal. When that goal has been realized, the groaning world will rejoice and share in the perfected glory of God's children. The world's need to be broken in order to fulfill God's will of being a tool to bring us to perfection will be over; it's labor pains are ended once it has accomplished its purpose - the birth of the children of God. Once its labor is over, the pain is forgotten and joy ensues.
The whole world, the entire universe has one purpose – to display the love of God – to teach finite human beings what infinite, perfect love is and is not. It's all there if only we open our eyes to see. Everything, from beautiful sunsets to the awesome birth of a child to earthquakes, tornadoes, and mosquitoes, is here to show us what love is and what it is not. It is here to convey to us God's gift of sharing His life with us and it is working right according to plan.
The full journey
The real Christian Journey is much longer and more beautiful than portrayed in this book. This work has dealt primarily with what I have termed Transformational Christianity. Let me put forth a road map for this journey. It is not authoritative – just the way I have made sense of it. When most people come alive to God and begin the Christian Journey in earnest, they are coming out of either some mechanical Christianity they have learned from their culture or complete unbelief. There is not much difference between the two. Their first transition is to develop a relationship with God. This is a very important state but it is just the beginning. It is very immature and very human. God is viewed mostly in human terms and most effort involves human strength. There may be multitudes of external, superficial changes but it is only a start and has barely entered the real transformation Christianity offers in order to bring us to the gift of God's love and life. Sadly, most of what outsiders see as Christianity is the first two layers. Thus, they do not begin to comprehend the power and awesome potential of the Christian Journey. Instead, they see a very human and flawed work which presents a humanized, anthropomorphic and thus distorted view of God. This book has focused on helping to understand and facilitate the transition to the third leg of the journey, from Relational to Transformational Christianity. At this stage, we begin to develop a true selfknowledge. We begin to de-humanize God, start to see Him as He is, and simultaneously perceive our own inadequacy. Observing the chasm between God and us may initially devastate us but it does not leave us in despair. Rather, it encourages us to run toward the love of a God who wills and promises to change us inadequate bags of mud into the beauty and perfection He is. Oh endless love, oh divine insanity, my Love who has promised to make me as He is! Can the world be any more beautiful, can life be any more worth living once God has opened our eyes to see that all creation cries out His love for us and proclaims His desire to share all He is with us! Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord – God of power and might – Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Once we become aware of this chasmic difference, we can begin the real work of Christianity, the miraculous transformation of our nature from human to divine. Frankly, as we have already stated, the transformation does not need to wait for us to understand; it can happen despite our ignorance. But what next? Page 86
Once we begin to fathom the profundity of selfless love, the love that is and comes from God, we are led to a sublime humility if we are willing to follow. This brings us to, perhaps, the most frightful and difficult transition of all. Once we come to profound humility and sublime selfless love, the suffering of the world finally makes sense. Then we come to see why a perfect, loving God made a suffering world. Indeed, through courage, faith and love which can only come from God, we not only understand and accept the suffering of the world but embrace it. Why? Because for love to be perfect, it must be perfectly free and the freedom of love is built, tested and proved in the crucible of suffering. Love, freedom and suffering are inseparable. But that is the subject of another work in this series. I pray that those of you who follow the Christ who suffered for us are now better equipped to continue your journey and that those of you who do not follow, at least understand what Christianity is and may one day consider it as the path for your own life. May the God who loves us and invites us to the gift of eternally sustainable life be loved and blessed by His people forever.
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