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A Note About Grace

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Preaching on grace is vital, but grace without sin is a solution in search of a problem, and grace without hell is meaningless.  If the good news of the gospel is segregated from the ugly truths of human existence, it ceases to be good.

What's the Problem with Porn?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

In recent days, my daughter’s reading tastes have begun to shift from tween lit to young-adult fiction.  Though I’m not sorry to say goodbye to the likes of Dork Diaries, this shift also awakens some unease in my wife and me.  We know that YA fic has become increasingly racy in recent years, and in any event, it won’t be long before the advent of physical maturity exposes both of my children to the temptations of pornography.

To say the least, the struggle against porn has not gone well for God’s people over the past several decades.  Few indeed are the Christian men these days who haven’t had problems with porn.  Increasingly, though, smut salesmen have figured out how to peddle their wares to women too.  Take, for instance, the hot new Netflix series Bridgerton, which is perhaps best described as pornography dressed up like Jane Austen.  Men are hardly the target audience there!

In the face of this onslaught, the old standby argument of lust-is-a-sin-so-don’t-use-porn, though true, has proven inadequate.  If we want to safeguard ourselves and our children from pornography, we have to arrive at a more profound understanding than that.  Porn use isn’t merely a problem because it violates a thou-shalt-not.  It’s a problem because it subverts and corrupts God’s intent for human sexuality.

We should pay much more attention than we do to the fact that in Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul by the Holy Spirit compares the one-flesh relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and the church.  It’s commonplace for ministers performing a wedding to describe marriage as sacred, but most Christians, even married Christians, don’t want to contemplate the sacredness of marital intimacy. 

Like all of God’s handiwork, it is nourishing, affirming, and life-giving (in many senses).  As husband and wife grow spiritually and in their relationship with each other, their delight in coming together grows too.  In the affection, understanding, and trust of the marriage bed, we expose ourselves completely, body, heart, and soul, and we rejoice to find ourselves known and loved regardless.  This is perhaps the closest we can come on earth to experiencing what it is like to be seen and known and loved by God.

Godly sexuality is one of His most beautiful creations, so we should not be surprised that Satan hates it and yearns to destroy it.  His malice is evident in unhappy marriages, in sexual immorality, and increasingly in enslavement to pornography.  Like all that Satan does, these things are counterfeits of the original, having the appearance of God’s good work without its reality.

This is most obvious with porn.  Immorality at least involves a one-flesh experience with somebody, but porn use doesn’t involve anybody.  Pleasure is present, but intimacy is always, devastatingly, absent.  Porn does not create, for it is sterile.  It does not enrich, for it is empty.  It does not unite, for it is lonely.

Pornography certainly existed 2000 years ago (witness the frescoes that have been unearthed in the brothels of Pompeii), but Paul never could have used it to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.  That relationship is fundamentally selfless.  Christ surrendered everything to His bride in death; she surrenders everything to Him in life.  So too, God intends for husbands and wives to surrender everything to one another in the intimacy of marriage (of which sexual intimacy is both a part and an analog). 

By contrast, porn is selfish.  You have no thought for anyone else; it’s entirely about you.  Thus, the porn user falls prey to the great paradox of selfishness.  There is great joy in serving others, but there is no joy in serving the self.  Instead, selfishness hollows us out like a worm in an apple.

There are no happy, contented, flourishing porn users.  No one returns repeatedly to that first picture, that first video, finding it ever more fulfilling than it was the first time.  Instead, the pleasures of porn swiftly begin to pall.  What was once captivating quickly becomes boring, and so the porn user (or, by this time, more properly “porn addict”) begins a futile, frantic search to rediscover what they have lost. 

Over time, they turn to depictions that are ever more shocking and extreme, but more and more, those things offer less and less.  They learn that the hardness of heart caused by sin is most of all a problem for the sinner.  Eventually, the greatest depravity that the Internet has to offer elicits scarcely a quiver, but still the addict continues, miserable but hoping desperately that what they find with the next swipe, the next mouse click, will help them feel something again.

Sadly, the addict becomes insensible not only to evil but also to good.  In training themselves to focus on seeming rather than substance, they lose the ability to appreciate union with their spouse.  In marriage, physical attraction is only the tip of the iceberg, but if all you care about is physical attraction, no flesh-and-blood spouse can compete with the airbrushed impossibility available online.  Living waters flow from following God’s design in marriage, but the addict returns futilely to the broken cistern of pornography, hoping to find there what it never can offer.

Such a combination of misery and enslavement always has a diabolical origin, but anyone who truly wants to be free can conquer through Christ.  The road out of porn addiction, as with any addiction, is long and difficult, but escape is possible.

It is far better for all of us, though, to learn to see the trap surrounding the bait before we take that first bite.  We need wisdom to avoid the snare that Satan has laid, and we also need courage to teach others about it.  Sex is nobody’s favorite topic in Bible class or at the dinner table, but the more we emphasize the joys of obedience and the dangers of sin, the more likely we are to evade temptation.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Pressing On.

Perseverance

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Among the various other websites I frequent, I commonly visit a forum called Bogleheads, which focuses on investing in index mutual funds.  A couple of things set it apart from the other things I read online.  First, there are many Bogleheads posters who celebrate what we might call old-fashioned virtues:  discipline, hard work, frugality, and patience.  Second, the posters there are much wealthier than the Internet or national norm.  None of them would be so gauche as to brag about their net worth, but they spend a lot of time talking about tax issues that aren’t relevant unless you’ve got a pile.

I don’t think this is coincidence.  Having those old-fashioned values doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to end up with a lot of money.  As the book of Ecclesiastes says, time and chance can overtake anybody. 

However, if you don’t have them, it is nearly certain that you won’t prosper financially, and if you do, you won’t be able to hold on to it.  This is usually what happens to lottery winners.  They have the money, but they don’t have the character.

Of course, laying up treasure on earth is much less important than laying up treasure in heaven.  However, those old-fashioned values that play such a large role in the former are significant in the latter too.  This morning, let’s spend some time considering a Biblical ideal that encapsulates them all, the ideal of perseverance.

If we want to persevere so that we inherit eternal life, there are three things that we must understand.  First, we must KNOW OUR GOAL.  Consider what the Hebrews writer says in Hebrews 12:1-3.  Here, he tells us to run with endurance, a Biblical synonym for perseverance.  In doing this, we should look to Jesus, who endured the cross but received the reward of sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God.  If we want to get what Jesus got, we have to do what Jesus did.

This too is nothing more than financial common sense.  Unless I know about how much money I want to save to ensure a comfortable retirement for my wife and me, I have no way of evaluating my current financial situation.  Have I saved too little?  Have I saved too much?  Who knows? 

However, once I settle on a goal, then I can tell whether I’m making the progress necessary to achieve my goal and what corrections I need to make.  I can also consider other decisions in the light of how they will affect my goal.  Sure, it would be fun to trade in my 12-year-old Toyota Corolla for a bright shiny new King Ranch F-150, but that’s not really the question.  The question is whether that King Ranch F-150 will keep me from achieving what really matters.

The same is true for us spiritually.  We have to fix our eyes on that goal of being with Jesus and make all our other decisions according to that goal.  Let me give you an example.  Because the COVID danger has abated somewhat, last week, the elders returned our congregation to our usual schedule of worship services for the first time in months.  Now, we have a decision to make.  Are we going to fully return to in-person services, or are we going to keep on with pajama church because that couch is so comfy? 

Let me suggest to you this morning, brethren, that if we make our decision about attendance without our goal in mind, we’re going to make the wrong decision.  The only way to make the right decision here is to ask, “Which choice about church attendance will be most likely to get me to heaven?”  If heaven is truly our goal, asking that question will tell us all we need to know about where we need to be when the church-house doors are open.

Second, we must KNOW OUR ENEMY.  James identifies this enemy in James 1:13-15.  That deadly enemy isn’t all the worldly people around us.  It isn’t even the devil.  After all, the devil can’t harm us spiritually at all without our consent and cooperation.  Instead, the worst enemy that every one of us has is ourselves.

This is certainly true in the world of finance.  It’s statistical fact that as a whole, individual investors underperform the market.  They’re not very good at picking which stocks are going to do well.  When they see the stock market at all-time highs, they get greedy and buy in very expensively.  On the other hand, when the market crashes, they get fearful and sell out, often for much less than they paid on the way up.  As a rule, the fewer decisions an investor makes, the better they will do.

In our spiritual lives, we don’t have the luxury of simply going through our days making no decisions of significance.  We call people like that “one-talent servants”.  However, we must be aware that the same fleshly biases that wreck investors are tools that the devil will eagerly use to wreck our souls.  Almost all people who go to hell will do so because they wanted something they shouldn’t have wanted or feared something they shouldn’t have feared.

As a thought exercise this morning, then, let’s pause to do what is sometimes called a pre-mortem.  Imagine that 1000 years from now, you have lost your soul.  You are immersed in an eternity of suffering and regret.  You look back on your life and you say, “If only I hadn’t. . .” 

If only you hadn’t what?  What is the one thing that you know, in the silence of your heart, has the potential to cost you your soul, or, worse yet, is in the process of costing you your soul right now?  Unless you are deceiving yourself, that tells you what your enemy is.  That tells you what you must guard against or change in order to inherit eternal life.

Finally, we must KNOW OUR PLAN.  Paul gives us the outlines of what it has to be in Galatians 6:7-9.  It’s not enough for us to know where we want to spend eternity.  It’s not enough for us to guard against the greatest danger to our souls.  It’s not even enough for us to do good.  We have to continue doing good, even when we’re tired, even when we want to get up.  Then and only then will we reap the harvest of eternal life.

Again, there’s nothing different here than is true in the world of saving for retirement.  They say as a rule of thumb, if you don’t have a pension, you should look to have 10x your annual salary saved up by the time you retire.  Now, I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that most of us have 10x our salary sitting around someplace, waiting to be thrown into a retirement account.  To me, at least, that’s a whole, whole lot of money! 

So how do you get there?  Simple.  One investment at a time.  You put something aside month by month, year by year, decade by decade, and as that money starts to compound, by the time the day comes, you’re ready.

In the same way, I think we’re best off if we take our salvation one day at a time.  If we’ve got some spiritual struggle, if we know we’re not where we need to be, the magnitude of the change we need to make can be overwhelming!  Let me tell you a secret.  None of us are perfect, and none of us are ever going to be perfect, but what every one of us can do, every day, is be better.  We can find five extra minutes to read the Bible or pray a little more.  We can summon up the willpower to fight off that one temptation.  We can send that one encouraging message to a brother, friend, or loved one.  In short, we can grow and be faithful.  If that’s what we do, then by the grace of Christ, it’s going to be enough.

Freedom and the Flesh

Monday, April 12, 2021

In 1 and 2 Corinthians, we encounter a young church full of new converts.  Some of these people have come out of gross immorality to draw near to God through Christ.  However, the Corinthians suffered from a predictable problem.  Rather than abandoning their former worldly thinking, they imported it into the church, so that even the Lord’s Supper became an opportunity for them to exalt themselves and shame others.

In Galatians 5:13-15, Paul condemns this worldly worldview.  He points out that in Christ, we have freedom.  We are freed from our sins; we are freed from the need to justify ourselves before God through works of merit.  However, he warns the Galatians that it is all too easy to use our freedom in Christ to express our fleshly desires.  Rather than loving and serving one another, we can find ourselves attacking and devouring one another.

Sad to say, this fleshly attitude is all too evident among God’s people 2000 years later, even among those who have been Christians for much longer than the Corinthians had.  Most of us have probably seen brethren who obeyed the gospel decades ago acting as though they had never come out of the world in the first place.  Contentiousness, self-will, and pride are fully as evident in them as they are in someone who never has set foot inside a church building.

If we are honest, each one of us will admit that this is a struggle for us.  All of us were toddlers once, and inside us all, that inner toddler remains.  We want what we want, we want it now, and if we don’t get what we want, we are inclined to pitch a fit. 

Sometimes, brethren cloak their personal outrage in doctrinal self-righteousness.  They will seize upon an obscure issue and insist that everyone follow their obscure position, or else.  Really, though, whether they realize it or not, the true problem is not their quirky interpretation of the Scriptures.  It is that they aren’t being honored in the way that they feel they deserve.

This is not how we have learned Christ.  As Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:22, all things belong to us.  Our exaltation in Christ is so extraordinary that any of our attempts to exalt ourselves cannot change our position in any meaningful way.  It would be like me trying to make a meaningful contribution to the gold in Ft. Knox by tossing my wedding ring on the pile!

All things belong to us, so the affronts that matter so much to the world should be insignificant to us.  Brother X is a jerk.  Who cares?  We have Christ.  Sister Y insisted on her way.  Who cares?  We have Christ.  They are not rivals for the esteem that rightfully should be ours.  They are fellow heirs in Christ who offer us opportunities for service and love.  We must not bite and devour one another, but more importantly, we don’t need to bite and devour one another.  We already have been filled with Him.

Freedom in Christ

Thursday, April 08, 2021

I few days ago, I posted a bulletin article about Galatians 3:23-25 and Paul’s proclamation that we are no longer under the Law of Moses.  In particular, I applied this to the use of instrumental music in worship and explained that the use of the instrument in Psalms and elsewhere is not relevant to our practice today.

Not surprisingly, this generated a fair amount of spirited, though civil, discussion.  I replied to most commenters inthread, but there was one that I thought deserved a longer response.  This commenter said, “Seems like strange logic to say ‘you are no longer under a guardian’, therefore you have these new restrictions (no instrumental music), even though those restrictions were never actually given. Being no longer under a guardian implies more freedom, not more restrictions.”  I asked for and got permission from him to address his comment separately.

I think this comment gets to the heart of what it means to follow Christ instead of following Moses.  Because we are justified by faith instead of justified by works, our motives for obedience are different.

Let’s start with the justification-by-works side first.  Justification by works is necessarily minimum-seeking.  If you agree to work for someone for eight hours to receive a given amount of money, you go home when your shift is over, and they pay you no more than they had promised.  Everybody involved meets the standard (if they are just people), but no one exceeds it.  To work longer or pay more would be an act of mercy, not justice.

Justification by faith is different.  In the spiritual realm, none of us want what is due us!  We don’t want justice.  We want mercy, and we receive it through faith in Christ.  He justified us when it was impossible for us to justify ourselves.

At this point, we encounter the rhetorical question of Romans 6:13.  Should we sin because we are not under the Law but under grace?  In other words, if my works are not contributing to my justification in any way, why continue to work?  In the remainder of the chapter, Paul replies that simply because we have been freed from the Law does not mean that we can do whatever we want.  Rather, we have become slaves to righteousness.

However, the mode of slavery is different.  We are not like the “wage slave” of the system of works.  We don’t work because we want to earn our wages.  Instead, we work because of the gift that has been given us.  As per 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, the love of Christ compels us.  He died for me, so I must live for Him.

This kind of slavery is far more profound than the other.  When it comes to Jesus, I don’t ask, “How long must I work?”  I ask, “How much can I give?”  Nothing is too much for the One who rescued me from hell by a single transcendent act of mercy!  Indeed, nothing is enough.

This transforms the way I read the Bible too.  I don’t turn to the Scriptures to figure out what I can get away with.  I turn to them to figure out everything that I can possibly do to please my Lord. 

This makes the instrumental-music question easy.  I know for certain that singing praises to Jesus pleases and honors Him.  I don’t know that adding the instrument to my worship pleases and honors Him.  There’s no evidence that it does. 

At this point, I could lawyer and weasel and say, “Well, Jesus never told me not to!”  That’s true, but it’s irrelevant.  In real life, I’m not bringing in the instrument for Him (no evidence, remember?).  I’m bringing it in for me.  I’m taking the life that He bought and paid for, and I’m trying to reclaim some of that life for myself. 

That’s not who I am.  That person died in the waters of baptism, and I’m determined to make sure he stays dead!

So it is that in Christ, we are freed from the Law and the need to justify ourselves, yet we also are enslaved in the most complete bondage that a human being can experience.  Every action, every word, and even every thought must be taken captive to the obedience of Christ.  As part of that obedience, until somebody can show me that instrumental worship is about serving Jesus instead of serving the self, I’m not interested.

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