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Retreating from Conclusions

Monday, February 22, 2021

Acts 11:1-18 contains one of the most remarkable examples of good behavior in the entire Bible.  Peter returns to Jerusalem to Caesarea, fresh from the triumph of baptizing the household of Cornelius, the first Gentile converts to Christ. 

However, this poses an ideological problem for Christians whom Luke describes as being “of the circumcision”.  These are brethren who believe that in order to follow Christ, you have to follow Moses too.  That required observant Jews to maintain the bewildering tangle of dietary laws from Leviticus, laws that no one but Jews followed. 

Thus, to eat with a Gentile was to violate the Law, and in observing that Peter ate with the household of Cornelius, this is precisely the accusation that the Christians who are of the circumcision are making.  They don’t condemn him right out, but it’s fair to imagine their feet tapping impatiently as they wait for an explanation.

Of course, an explanation is precisely what Peter is delighted to give.  He has associated with Gentiles only because the Holy Spirit has shown him a vision, a vision that simultaneously identifies Greeks as fit prospects for the gospel and declares all foods clean.  The baptism of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon those in Cornelius’s household, confirms that this dramatic change is the will of God.

Here is where we come to the remarkable thing.  The party of the circumcision causes plenty of trouble later, pressuring Peter into hypocrisy and provoking Paul to write the epistle to the Galatians, among other problems.  In Acts 11, however, they make the godly choice.  In the face of evidence that Peter had done righteously, they walk back their implied accusation and acknowledge that God has opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles too.

This is hard.  Indeed, this is very hard.  At one point or another, all of us have found ourselves in a place where we have jumped to the wrong conclusion.  Maybe, like the party of the circumcision, we stated the facts and then raised an accusatory eyebrow.  Maybe we went so far as to say the ugly part out loud, to accuse another of wrongdoing on the basis of inadequate information.

When we find out the truth in such cases, the temptation is to double down on the error.  We will stick to our guns on the mistaken assessment of the situation, the mistaken interpretation of Scripture.  We will manufacture additional arguments, additional claims, attempting to shift some or all of the blame for our mistake to the other.  If we do so with sufficient volume, these efforts may even persuade bystanders and silence any opposition.

However, they will not change the truth, and they will not please God.  He desires truth in the inmost parts, and choosing to continue in error is knowingly insisting on a falsehood.  Though it is painful to our pride, the righteous choice is to retreat, to acknowledge that we assumed too much.  Only this kind of honesty and self-honesty will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness. 

Fear and False Doctrine

Thursday, February 18, 2021

As nearly every preacher with a brain has observed, the response to false doctrine too often is itself false doctrine.  Just because Johann Tetzel promised works-based salvation through the sale of indulgences does not mean that you should conclude that salvation is by faith alone, without any human interaction.  Instead, the Scriptures commonly call us to more nuanced convictions that hold two paradoxical truths in tension.

Consider, for instance, opposition among brethren to the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security, also known as perseverance of the saints, the P in TULIP.  Countless sermons have been preached (by me, among many others) examining the passages that show that falling away is indeed possible.  Hebrews 6:4-8, holla!

So far, so true.  However, in focusing on the passages that highlight the holes in Calvinism, we have not paid equal attention to the passages that Calvinists like to use, which are no less true than Hebrews 6.  They interfere with the clarity of the message we want to promote, so rather than explaining them, we explain them away.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith BUT WE STILL HAVE TO BE BAPTIZED.  Yes, no one can snatch us out of the hand of Jesus BUT WE CAN STILL FALL AWAY.

It certainly is true that we must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins and that we must live faithfully thereafter.  However, a distorted emphasis on those truths at the expense of others leads us to a distorted view of our own salvation and our relationship with God.

This view maximizes the importance of right action and minimizes grace and the mercy of God.  No longer is He a God who longs to have compassion on us, who lavishes on us the riches of His grace.  Instead, He becomes a God who is a spiritual miser. 

He yields His grace reluctantly, always asking, “Can’t you do better?”  He watches our spiritual journey with gimlet eyes, and as soon as we set a toe over the line (“Even now it may be that the line you have crossed!”), wham!   Down comes the executioner’s axe!  Severed from Christ, fallen from grace, toast.

The spiritual and emotional consequences of this distortion are profound.  I know brethren who are wonderful A-list Christians yet nonetheless spend their lives staggering under the weight of fear and guilt.  “What if I haven’t done enough?” they ask. 

They sense, correctly, that they haven’t done enough.  No one has or ever will.  The problem is that they’re looking for justification in the wrong place.  Our sufficiency is not in ourselves.  It is in Christ.  We are not reliable, but He is, and because He is, we can contemplate the future with confidence and hope.

Rather than being so concerned about defeating false doctrine, we instead should open our mind to the full truth of the word.  Yes, it contains warnings, and those should concern us.  However, it also contains promises, and from those we should take great comfort.

Psalm 72

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Give the King Your judgments, God,
And Your goodness to the Son;
May He judge with righteousness,
Bringing peace to everyone.
Helping those who are oppressed,
May He give the needy rest!

While the sun and moon endure,
May their fear of You not cease;
Like the rains that bless the field,
May His rule abound with peace.
May His enemies bow down,
Doing homage to His crown.

When the needy cry for help,
In compassion He will save;
They are precious in His sight;
He will keep them from the grave.
Let them name Him as they pray
And show thankfulness all day.

May the harvest crown the hills;
May the city flourish too;
Ever may His name increase;
Let men honor it anew;
For the wonders of Your ways,
Let the earth be filled with praise!

Suggested tune:  DIX
(“For the Beauty of the Earth”)

Spiritual Sarcasm

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

In recent days, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions with other Christians about whether sarcasm, especially in a tense confrontation with enemies of the church, is ever appropriate for God’s people.  A host of familiar passages would suggest that it is not.  In Luke 6:28, Jesus tells us to bless those who curse us.  In 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Paul insists that the Lord’s bondservant must be kind and gentle.  In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter counsels us to make our defense with gentleness.

And yet, all three of these men used sarcasm in confrontations with enemies of the gospel.  In John 10:32, Jesus sarcastically asks the Jews which of His good works has caused them to stone Him.  Similarly, in Acts 4:9, Peter asks the Sanhedrin (“Really, guys?”) if he is on trial for a benefit done to a sick man. 

In Acts 8:3-5, Paul calls Ananias the high priest a whitewashed wall (a hypocrite, as in Matthew 23:27) for claiming to try him according to the Law yet ordering him to be struck unlawfully.  I also believe that Paul’s “apology” in v.5 is not truly an apology but rather a sarcastic allusion to the fact that Ananias was not appointed high priest according to the Law either (#notmyhighpriest).  In doing so, he would have been playing to the Pharisees, who also did not believe that Ananias was rightfully appointed, and to whom he would appeal directly in a few moments.

There are plenty of other examples throughout the New Testament and still more in the Old Testament, many of which come from the lips of God.  However, these three suffice to show that the godly employed sarcasm in defense of the gospel.  Indeed, sarcasm is a much better attested practice than (for instance) partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week!

However, there must be some way for us to distinguish between the general rule of gentleness and these exceptions in practice.  Otherwise, the exceptions will swallow the rule!  In fact, the use of godly sarcasm appears to be limited to a narrow set of circumstances:  first, it is in defense of truth; second, it is used in response to bad faith by adversaries; and third, it highlights the bad faith.

For example, the Jews in John 10 are clearly not acting in good faith.  The many miracles that Jesus has worked have provided abundant evidence that He is from God.  However, rather than considering Jesus’ challenging statement about Himself in the light of this evidence, the Jews react with closed-minded fury.  Jesus’ sarcasm in v. 32 emphasizes the chasm between their self-righteous rage and the unrighteousness of their conduct.

The truth will always have its opponents.  Those who disagree with us in good faith, even when they disagree strongly, are entitled to a courteous and kind reception from us.  Such good treatment, in conjunction with a vigorous defense of truth, will win the honest adversary over to the cause of Christ.

However, others are committed to opposing the truth no matter what.  They will not scruple at the use of any low, underhanded, hypocritical tactic if they believe it will bring God and his people into disrepute.  In such cases, we are justified in using sarcasm to shine a light on their bad faith.  The hypocrite will not enjoy the experience, but neither does anyone else whose evil deeds are exposed to light.

The Reluctant Evangelist

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Bible is full of stories of amazing occurrences, but sometimes, the narratives about very ordinary men and women are what attract our eyes.  For me, one such is the tale of Ananias the Damascene disciple in Acts 9:10-17.  Everything we know about this man comes from the book of Acts.  Indeed, it all comes from the various accounts of the conversion of Saul.  We’re introduced to him in this story, and after it concludes, we never see him again.

Nonetheless, the Scriptures do reveal some things about him.  He lived in Damascus (duh).  He was a devout, Law-keeping Jewish follower of Jesus.  He had a good reputation.  Apparently, he even possessed the miraculous spiritual gift of healing, so he had encountered an apostle at some point.

Jesus has a plan for Ananias, and He tells him about it.  He needs to seek out a man named Saul of Tarsus and lay hands on him so that he can regain his sight.

This plan does not thrill the soul of Ananias.  He has heard of Saul of Tarsus, as probably every Christian alive had.  Saul was Church Enemy Number One, responsible for the scattering of the Jerusalem church and the imprisonment or death of many innocent believers.  What’s more, Ananias knows that Saul has come to Damascus to dish out more of the same.

The Lord’s response to Ananias’ concerns is noteworthy.  He doesn’t pause to calm the fears of His understandably concerned disciple.  He says, simply, “Go.  This one’s Mine.”  Obedient to the word of the Lord, Ananias goes.  Saul obeys the gospel, and the world will never be the same again.

I am encouraged by Ananias.  I am heartened that he too had qualms about obeying God when it came to evangelism.  I often have had, and continue to have, those same qualms with much less reason! 

In fact, it may well be that Ananias’ conversation with Jesus is included in Acts 9 because we do find it so easy to identify with him.  Afraid of personal work?  Well, here’s your guy!

However, we should not focus so much on Ananias’ reluctance that we overlook Christ’s reply.  God is mindful of our frame, and there is much in His word that reveals His compassion for us.  Despite His compassion, He remains King.  When He says, “Go,” He means, “Go!”  It may well be that He has a plan for us too, and that as with Ananias, there is someone only we can help.

Ananias obeyed God, and when he did, he found that he had nothing to be afraid of.  99.9 percent of the time, when we speak up for the Lord, we will find the same thing.  I don’t have any idea how many people I’ve invited to study the Bible with me, and not all of them were willing, but I can’t think of one who even replied with an unkind word.  Fear of the unknown, especially when it comes to evangelism, is natural and understandable, but when God calls us to do His work, fear needs to take a back seat.

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