Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pleasing God

According to Katharine Jefferts Schori, the head of the Episcopal church, “the Scriptures should not be taken too literally. "We are not handed a rule book and said you must live this way, according to every jot and tittle of these rules." She added, "We're called to wrestle with our faith" (OneNewNow).

That’s funny. The New Testament is filled with commands to live in obedience to the Word of God. I can’t think of a single place where we are “called to wrestle with our faith.” Whenever one of these apostates say we shouldn’t take the Bible too literally, it is usually code for, “We don’t believe or obey this part.” For example, when Paul says, “the works of the flesh are…sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envies, drunkenness, orgies….” the problem isn’t literal vs. non-literal interpretation. The problem is that we are guilty!

I recently wrote an essay on New Testament commands and obedience. I’ve pasted part of it below:

Love for Christ is essential to sanctification because the Word of God ties genuine love for Jesus to obedience. Jesus taught, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (Jn.14:15). He said that anyone who loves him “will keep my word” (Jn.14:23-24, cf. Jn. 15:10). In fact, according to John, “Whoever says I know him but does not keep his commandments is a liar…” (1 Jn. 2:4)!

It is impossible, however, to obey the Word of our Lord if we don’t know the Word—and it is through the Word of God that we are sanctified. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your Word is truth” (Jn.17:17). Paul says that Christ gave himself for his church “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word” (Eph. 5:26, cf. Rom.12:2). The writer of Hebrews even implies that Christians who are not grounded in the Word of God are spiritually immature (Heb.5:13).

Being grounded in the Word of God means thoroughly knowing Scripture as well as you know your favorite movie—the one where you can describe all the scenes, identify the main actors, and quote many of the lines by heart!

James, the half-brother of Jesus and writer of the book of James, would insist, however, that that we are not sanctified simply by reading or hearing the Word alone, but by obeying it! James teaches that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17, 26) and that those who hear the Word of God but do not obey are like people who view their scruffy face in a mirror and walk away without doing anything about it. He says such people are deceiving themselves (Jas. 1:22-25).

James is simply reflecting the teaching of Jesus who said that it was those who hear the Word of God and do it who are his mothers, brothers and sisters (Lk.8:21). In response to a woman who blessed him, Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and obey it” (Lk.11:28). In fact, Jesus said that it was those who keep his Word who shall not see death (Jn.8:51-52, cf. Jn.8:31). Evangelicals rightly place a great deal of emphasis on Jesus’ command to go into all the world to make disciples but we don’t often hear as much about that fact that making disciples involves “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). We are not really making disciples unless we are teaching people to obey Jesus.

What Jesus taught elsewhere about grace shows, however, that he was not thinking of salvation by works, but rather as Paul would later write, an “obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

Throughout history some people have believed that Paul’s teaching on salvation by grace apart from works contradicted the teachings of Jesus and James on obedience, but this is not true. In a statement that looks like it could have come right out of the book of James, Paul writes, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified (Rom. 2:13). In fact, many people might be surprised to learn how much emphasis Paul actually places on obedience. For example, roughly half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians explains how we should live in obedience to God. Virtually the entire book of First Corinthians tells how Christians should live the Christian life; and in what may be regarded as the purpose statement for First Timothy, Paul writes, “I am writing these things to you so that…you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God” (1 Tim.3:14-15).

Paul went so far as to warn his readers that those who practiced such things as sexual immorality, homosexuality, adultery, idolatry, drunkenness, theft, and greed would not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor.6:9-11; cf. Gal.5:16-25). In fact, to his critics who said we should just live in sin to show how gracious God really is, Paul responded, “Their condemnation is just!” (Rom.3:8; cf. 6:1).

This emphasis on obedience is not just found in the teaching of Jesus, James and Paul (as if that weren’t enough) but appears throughout the entire New Testament. John, for example, wrote “…whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (Jn.3:36). The Book of Acts says God has given his Holy Spirit “to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32). The writer of Hebrews said that Jesus is “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb.5:9) and both Peter and Jude absolutely lambaste “ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (Jude 4, cf. 2 Pet.2).

In other words, the Word of God is not some magic charm that works sanctification simply by meditating on a few verses and waiting for God to speak. Nor does it bring about sanctification even by rigorous scholarly study of the Hebrew and Greek text. Sanctification involves obedience to the Word of God.

Obedience, however, is not a popular topic in modern Christianity. In fact, anyone who would dare to preach biblical obedience too strongly is bound to be attacked as self-righteous, judgmental, and legalistic! The critic will insist that Christians are free from the law and that Christianity is not about rules and regulations but about relationship, compassion and community. The critic may point out that Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (Jn.6:63). That’s true, but Jesus immediately follows up with, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn.6:63). The words of Jesus are “spirit and life.” Spirit and Word are not played off against each other but go hand in hand.

But doesn’t Paul say, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor.3:17). Doesn’t Paul insist that “we are released from the law…so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit” (Rom.7:6). Doesn’t he also say, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor.3:6). Isn’t Paul arguing that we are now free from the law and legalism?

Absolutely! But Paul was refuting the false notion that keeping rules, regulations or rituals can make us right before God. In Christ we are free from such legalism, but Paul never taught that we are free to live in sin. For example, in Romans Paul teaches that, “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death,” but in the same letter Paul writes that those who are in the Spirit “put to death” the evil behaviors of the body (Rom.8:13).

Galatians is another letter in which Paul argues so fervently for our freedom from the law writing that we “were called to freedom,” but in practically the same breath he goes on to exhort, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Paul ties the work of the Spirit to obedience saying “if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal.5:13-26). Paul then closes his letter to the Galatians with extended exhortations to godly behavior and serious warnings against sin (Gal.5:16-6:10).

The freedom of which Paul speaks is freedom from thinking we have to work or strive to be good enough to merit God’s justification, but for Paul, being called to “freedom” never means freedom to sin and never eliminates the need to walk by the Spirit in obedience to God.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly, however, that this teaching on obedience is not salvation by works but rather an “obedience that comes from faith” (Rom.1:5; 16:26). Just as a wood fire in the fireplace produces the byproduct of smoke in the chimney, so faith produces the works. Works do nothing to save us; they are simply the byproduct of a deep love for Christ working through the power of the Holy Sprit in obedience to the Word of God.

Unfortunately, there are no magic formulas for sanctification. Holiness is sometimes just hard work. For example, Paul says things like: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (Rom.6:12), “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin” (Rom.6:13). Paul says that just as we once made our bodies available to impurity and wickedness, we must now make them “slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom.6:19). There is really nothing mystical or mysterious about all this. Paul says just do it, or don’t do it as the case may be. We don’t have to contemplate it, pray about it or meditate on it! Just obey it!

Of course this is all very easy to write but often so very hard to obey. In fact, it is nearly impossible to preach or teach on biblical obedience without being painfully aware of how far we personally fall short. While sanctification can be a crisis experience, it is also a long progressive journey. On this journey, temptation can often seem overwhelming. We need to be constantly aware that our “adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet.5:8) and that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph.6:12).

Paul counsels that we should put on the “armor of God” including the “Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God” (Eph.6:17). We may need to be on the lookout for that “way of escape” Paul talks about (1 Cor.10:13) in order to avoid overwhelming temptation. Sometimes we may need to seek someone who will keep us accountable (Jas. 5:16). In more severe cases like, for example, obsessive-compulsive disorders involving sin, Christian psychotherapy or psychiatry may be helpful. When Jesus counseled plucking out an eye or chopping off a hand (Mt.5:29-30; 18:8-9), he was not teaching dismemberment, but as a good teacher he was using hyperbole to make memorable the principle that sin is extremely serious and should be avoided at all costs.

In any case, we always need to pray for the Sprit’s wisdom and power, and we certainly need to sincerely repent when we sin—and we will sin. John writes that “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn.1:8). The biblical hall of fame is populated with repentant sinners: Moses the murderer, Samson the playboy, David the adulterer, Jonah the rebel, Peter the apostate, Paul the persecutor, etc. Being saved does not mean we never sin but it does mean that when we fall, we do not ignore the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, but sincerely repent and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, strive once again to live a life of obedience which is pleasing to God.

Last year, however, one of our chapel speakers argued forcefully that we should stop striving to please God since we are already accepted and pleasing in his sight. While this is true in a positional sense, it does not change the fact that walking in the Spirit in a life of sanctified behavior is pleasing to God.

Paul, for example, reminds the Thessalonians that he taught them how they “ought to walk and to please God” (1 Thess.4:1). Paul urges the Colossians to live their lives “in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col.1:10). He tells the Philippians that their sacrificial gift was “pleasing to God” (Phil.4:18). He tells Timothy that living a godly life “is pleasing in the sight of God…” (1 Tim.2:3; cf. 1 Tim.5:3-4). Similarly the author of Hebrews warns, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb.13:16).

Contrary to the leader of the Episcopal Church, the New Testament has quite a bit to say about obeying the Word of God and living a life pleasing to God. She just doesn't like much of what it has to say.


slimmons said...

Thanks for the encouragement and exhortation to faithfulness in message AND action!

St.Lee said...

Dennis, this was really a great post! I couldn't agree more. Top to bottom, I think you articulated the biblical view on this subject completely right.

jazzycat said...

Very good article.