Saturday, June 23, 2018

Mercy is not Political

He says what needs saying at this particular time:

Some thoughts on the transitions of the Christian life

Let us think of the life of the disciple -- one who learns from Jesus and seeks to follow in his way -- is a movement toward the increasingly more robust adoption of the virtuous life outlined by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. What we are talking about is the internalization of virtue as defined by Jesus. The Apostle Paul would call it the putting off of the old self and the putting on of the new.

I am not suggesting that this transition or movement is entirely steady, like a carefully graded upward inclination, a relentless climb toward perfection. But what I am saying is that the older disciple should be the wiser as well, especially with regard to the virtuous life. The long-term disciple, though he or she may have experienced numerous setbacks and obstacles along the path, will have progressed farther along in the transition toward Christlikeness than one who has only just begun on The Way.

This is a generalization, of course, but a useful one. Take Peter, for example. The Peter who writes two epistles to the churches in Asia Minor is wiser than the Peter who denied Jesus three times on the morning of his crucifixion. In a nutshell, the life of the Jesus-follower is a life of virtue-formation at the heart-level.

In the long-run we will see a progress that looks something like this:

  • hard heart >>>> soft heart
  • judgemental >>>> grace-giving
  • self-involved >>>> other-oriented
  • greedy/hoarding >>>> generous/open-handed
  • legalistic >>>> merciful
  • thankless >>>> thankful 
  • show-charity >>>> from-the-heart charity
And finally ( and this one is a hard learning):
  • resents suffering >>>> accepts suffering as a key part of the process of discipleship
That last item may be more fundamental, more intrinsic to the process, than all the rest. We wish it were not so, and it sometimes seems that modern life in the West is organized to avoid suffering at all costs. I am more than happy to receive the benefits of this widespread conspiracy of avoidance, yet the cost, though largely hidden, may be steep indeed. If we are to follow Jesus, we must bear our cross. To avoid the cross is to avoid Jesus.

On a personal level, we can use these lines of transition (of course there are others, as well) as a self-diagnostic. Have I gotten side-tracked on any of these? Has my heart, in some areas at least, grown harder instead of softer? Have I become more self-protective rather than risk-taking in the name of Jesus? Is there an area where I am less merciful than I used to be, or where I cling to old legalisms? If there is any backward movement along any of these lines, that is an example of salt losing its flavor (Matt. 5:13). It's something I need to worry about.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

3 things

To Hell with Romans 13, by Bryan Walsh.

Fathers, Remember the Future, by Voddie Boucham, Jr.

And an excellent prayer:
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Reading Update

I picked up There's a War to Be Won at a book sale for 50 cents or something. Geoffrey Perret is a great writer, and his emphasis on the building of the American army in the run-up to WWII is fascinating. The other thing is, I'm just fifty pages in and I want to strangle Douglas Macarthur.

I just finished John Piper's Let the Nations Be Glad. This was a bit of an obligatory read (with my pastor's strong encouragement). The beginning and end of the book is incredibly inspiring, but the large middle gets tedious as Piper piles up his Bible citations in order to drive his points home so that they will never be un-driven.

John's son, Barnabas, has a post on the value of reading fiction here. I don't think many people who don't already read fiction will change their reading-habits because of B. Piper's reasoning, but he's right on all counts. I find, though, that people in the church want to read for self-improvement, or out of a sense of obligation (i.e., a church-wide reading assignment . . . see above), and those kinds of motivations are simply improper, even undermining, where fiction is concerned.

By the way, I am always bemused by the typical reaction of many men to reading assignments in church. There's the inevitable question -- how many pages? -- and the inevitable complaints about how the author uses too many big words, too many complicated sentences, etc. It's as if, where reading is concerned, we've never got past the 4th grade.

A while back I lost my Kindle. Sheesh! So I deactivated the thing on Amazon and hoped it would turn up around the house (having looked for it in all the likely places, of course). But turn up it did not, so last week I got myself a new one. Opening the thing for the first time, I found myself at the very page where I left off on my old Kindle, months before! That's pretty cool, as I never would have known where to start. The book, by the way, is Exalting Jesus in Matthew, by David Platt.

Of course like every reader I have an extensive backlog of books I intend to get to someday. Nate Spencer forced me to move The Silmarillion up closer to the top of that list by writing an excellent reading help.

Finally, wife Laurie has discovered a new favorite author. She's reading everything by Kate Dicamillo. Indeed, I may just join her in this reading project!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

On reading the Gospels wisely

I've been Reading Jonathan Pennington's Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. It's as good as I expected it would be, even if one or two chapters were decidedly slow-going for me.

Bottom line, "reading the Gospels wisely" is a major goal for me. I'm glad that Pennington points out what I've often noticed as well: the strange lack of emphasis on the Gospels (as opposed to the epistles) among many reformed evangelicals. And when they do reference something in the Gospels, the passage is inevitably seen through the lens of the (Pauline) epistles. In fact, this inverts the proper relationship. We ought to be reading the epistles through the lens of the Gospels.

I'll illustrate this from my own experience. In a recent conversation, a seminary student told me that Jesus' words in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, where he equates anger with murder and lustful thoughts with adultery, were intended to show our helpless state and need for God's redeeming grace.

Well, that's a fine example of reading the Gospels through the lens of the Pauline epistles. In fact, such a reading is not so much Jesus-centered as Paul-centered, and not so much Gospel-oriented as Reformation theology oriented.

For me, coming to grips with Jesus has been the longest of long-roads in my faith walk, and one that even now I have only just begun. There have been many diversions. The "saved-by-faith-not-works" diversion was one, where absolutely everything was boiled down to that one message. The trouble is, the Sermon on the Mount cannot be boiled down to a mere truism. Sometimes reformed theology can seem nothing more like a theological avoidance-mechanism.

I suppose I should say here that I believe in the formulation -- saved by faith, not by works -- with all my heart. I suppose I should also say I have loved Paul's epistles for many years. But my primary study from now on is going to be in the Gospels. This is simply addressing a felt-need, I suppose. Jesus is the most supremely attractive figure in human history. We have four sources for his words and deeds -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is not to say I won't ever again be reading the OT or the epistles (after all, I go to an evangelical church, so the preaching will probably be frequently settled on the epistles), but that for me, in my private study and prayer, the Gospels will come first.

* * *

I'll be back with more from Pennington's book, and more also about the Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5, in a later post.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

More thoughts on life and godliness

So it's still 2 Peter 1:3 with me . . . I can't get it off my mind.

I'm intrigued by the way you can link it up with any of the imperatives of the Bible. Jesus tells his disciples they must "love one another, as I have loved you." Link that up with 2 Peter 1:3. It means that you (yes, you, if indeed you're a disciple of Jesus) can do that; you are able, however difficult it may seem, however unable you may feel. God has given you everything you need for life and godliness . . . everything you need to love one another.

Or take one of Paul's imperatives. "Set your mind on things above, where Christ is," he says (Colossians 3:2). But so often our minds are on "earthly things." This is exactly what Jesus was saying in the Sermon on the Mount when he talked about not storing up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, but storing up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy. It almost seems there is a battle for our minds going on, and much of our sinning is the natural working out of our mental preoccupations. But the message of 2 Peter is, God has given you everything you need to set your minds on your true treasures (that which Jesus secured for you), for to do so is "life and godliness."

Is there an imperative in the Bible that kind of makes you anxious? That you are conscious of frequently falling short of? Maybe it's the one about coveting, or lust, or greed. Maybe it's Paul's "Do all things without grumbling," or Jesus' "Go and make disciples." Or perhaps it's one of those Pauline "put offs" (anger, malice, obscene talk) that gives you pause. The point is, all these imperatives are way-markers to life and godliness. So here's something you might find helpful. Take a 3x5 card and write across the top, "God has given me everything I need in order to. . . ." Then, under that, write down that troubling imperative, the one you'd really rather not think about. For example:
  • God has given me everything I need in order to . . .
  • not be anxious about what I will eat or wear, but trust God for all things. (Matthew 6:25f)
You get the idea. But one more key point. Peter was writing to a church. He was telling the church, not an individual Christian, that they have everything they need for life and godliness. As the saying goes, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. Life and godliness is "walked out" in a family of believers.