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Beware Those Capital S's!

Monday, November 01, 2021

In our consideration of the original languages of the Bible, we’re fairly used to the idea that koiné Greek has elements that modern English doesn’t.  Most Christians have heard that there are four Greek words equivalent to the English “love”.   However, the opposite also is true.  There are things that modern English does that Greek doesn’t.

In particular, the Greek manuscripts of the Bible don’t use capitalization, along with punctuation and spaces between words.  However, we do use capitalization.  In a religious context, we use it to refer to deity.  God is our Creator, not our creator.  Jesus is Lord, not lord. 

This often makes a difference in comprehension.  If I say that my daughter has a generous spirit, readers understand that I am discussing her attitude and demeanor, not claiming that she is inhabited by a heavenly being.  However, when I say that the apostles were baptized with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, I clearly am talking about the heavenly being.

In Greek, those cues are absent.  All the capitalized references to God in our Bibles were capitalized by the translators.  In this, they did not apply some sort of esoteric knowledge.  Rather, they considered the context and determined whether the word in context appeared to be talking about deity or not.

Sometimes, there is little question.  “Spirit” in 2 Corinthians 13:14 obviously is about the Godhead; “spirit” in 1 Corinthians 5:5 obviously is not.  However, there are many verses in which the correct choice is less obvious, and in those situations, our translations tend to employ the capital S.   

In my ever-so-humble opinion, all the capital S’s can introduce a level of mystical confusion into texts that would be straightforward if translated in lowercase.  Romans 8:1-11 is perhaps the most obvious example of this.  With capital S’s, throughout the context, Paul is paralleling a being (the Spirit) with a non-being (the flesh).  Additionally, he appears to be claiming that Christians are simultaneously indwelt by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead.  Great is the mystery, indeed!

However, the mystery vanishes in lowercase.  Now, Paul is discussing the difference between those who walk according to the flesh (by following their fleshly impulses) and those who walk according to the spirit (by following their spiritual impulses).  So too, having the spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, and the spirit of Him who raised Christ from the dead doesn’t mean that we have a multitude of supernatural entities sharing our headspace.  Instead, it means that we share God’s motivations and perspectives. 

A little Greek is a dangerous thing, but so too is unquestioningly accepting translators’ decisions in areas where thoughtful Christians are competent to decide for themselves.  I may well be wrong about Romans 8.  Certainly, others are free to disagree with me!  However, all of us ought to be aware of the issue and address it thoughtfully, as befits those with a Berean spirit.

Justification by Works in James

Friday, October 29, 2021

Earlier this week, I posted about Paul’s discussion of justification by works in the first four chapters of Romans.  In it, he says that justification by works requires perfect obedience to God, which no one but Jesus has achieved.  Thus, Christians must seek salvation by faith apart from works.  Similarly, baptism for forgiveness of sins is an expression of faith, not an attempt to justify oneself by works.

In response, I received a question about justification by works in James.  In his epistle, James appears to directly contradict Paul.  After all, in Romans 3:28, Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.  In James 2:24, James says that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

What gives?  How can it be that two inspired writers would say such different things?

The key to resolving the question is to recognize that Paul and James don’t mean the same thing either by “works” or by “faith”.  In context, this is obvious.  Throughout Romans, Paul uses “works” as shorthand for perfect Law-keeping (or perfect righteousness by a Gentile).  In Paul’s terms, justification by works requires a lifetime of perfection.

James, however, doesn’t use “works” to mean a lifetime of perfection.  Instead, he uses it to refer to specific righteous actions.  In his discussion of the issue, he cites two examples of justification by works:  Abraham offering up Isaac (James 2:21) and Rahab saving the spies (James 2:25). 

Neither of those people was justified by works in a Pauline sense.  Abraham lied because his faith was weak.  Rahab also lied, and she was a prostitute besides.  Both sinned and therefore fall short of the glory of God.  However, both also revealed their faith through their behavior, and by those faith-filled works, they were justified.

Interestingly, James’ definition of justification by works is quite similar to Paul’s definition of justification by faith.  Paul’s two examples, Abraham and David, were justified by faith (David being fully as imperfect as Abraham was), but neither was a spiritual do-nothing.  Both believed the promises of God and acted in accordance with those promises.  Indeed, Paul goes on to make the point in Romans 6 that our receipt of grace through faith requires us to transform our lives.  Pauline faith works.

Not so with Jamesian “faith”.  His two examples of faith without works are the Christian who doesn’t help a brother or sister in need (James 2:15-16) and the demons (James 2:19).  Both acknowledge that God exists; neither honors Him as King through obedience. 

James’ most telling comment about them appears in James 2:14, where he observes that such a one “says he has faith”.  Though he’s not going to debate the point, James doesn’t really think that the non-worker has faith either.  The Pauline analog, as per Romans 6:15, is the one who sins because he is under grace, not law.

As we would expect, there is no contradiction between Romans and James.  The two epistles address two different problems.  The former is concerned with Judaizing teachers who bind circumcision even though doing so only makes sense as part of an attempt to justify oneself by works.  The latter is concerned with Christians who don’t think they have to follow Christ.  Additionally, both epistles have the same bottom line.  We must seek salvation through faith, but we also must live lives of obedience that show that our faith is genuine.

Godliness in Conflict

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The book of James has the reputation of being the most practical book of the New Testament, but Paul’s epistle to Titus surely must be considered in the same light.  Titus is only three chapters long, but all three chapters are light on abstraction and heavy on concrete application.  Especially in the second chapter, Paul aims these applications at specific groups, but often they apply equally well to all of us.

This is true of Paul’s words to Titus himself in Titus 2:7-8.  Paul is aware that when Titus travels to Crete, he’s going to run into all sorts of opponents of the gospel.  If these people can discredit Titus’ preaching through criticism of the preacher, that’s exactly what they’ll do. 

As a result, Paul counsels Titus on how to deprive these critics of the personal attacks they love.  Today, all Christians need to listen to his advice because there are plenty of people who want to attack us for the same reason.  According to Paul, if we want to put these opponents to shame, we must excel in these four areas:

  1. Good Deeds.  Christ-haters rejoice whenever they find religious hypocrites.  If they can prove that we don’t obey the truth we proclaim, they don’t have to obey it either.  We defeat this attack by living godly, blameless lives.  When everybody knows that we practice what we preach, charges of hypocrisy have no force.  What’s more, our example often proves to be as powerfully influential as our words.
  2. Purity of Doctrine.  It’s easy to dismiss somebody who doesn’t know why he believes what he believes.  Christians claim to be the people of the Book; if five minutes of religious conversation with us reveals that the Bible is unknown territory to us, that makes us another kind of religious hypocrite.  If we clearly don’t study the Scriptures, why should anyone else?  By contrast, when the time we have spent with the Bible is evident in the way we talk about it, we show that we deserve to be taken seriously.
  3. Dignity.  Sad to say, dignity is out of fashion these days.  Politicians, celebrities, and talking heads behave deplorably far too often, and far too many Christians take their cue from them, especially on social media.  They gleefully share demeaning memes, sneer at anyone who disagrees with them, and engage in endless slanging matches with their opponents.  Anyone with a good and honest heart will be repelled by such behavior.  On the other hand, when we refuse to engage in such behavior, we will stand out, and God-seekers will be drawn to us.
  4. Soundness of Speech.  This is the opposite of the unwholesome speech of Ephesians 4:29:  speech that undermines, speech that tears down, speech that leaves its hearers worse off than they were.  When we see a patron dress down a fast-food worker for getting their order wrong, that’s unwholesome speech on display.  We, however, should use our words to make days brighter, lives better, and to lead others toward Christ.  Just like we would only use sound timbers to build a house, we should only use sound words to build God’s temple.

Obviously, conduct like this guarantees nothing.  If people could reject Jesus despite His sinless perfection, we cannot expect to overcome a hard heart no matter how we behave.  However, when our behavior leaves others with nothing to object to, we make it as likely as possible that they will listen to us.

God Is Love

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Love is the most important concept in the Bible.  If I had to pick a one-word summary of the Bible, it would be chesed, the Hebrew word that is translated in our Old Testaments as “lovingkindness”, “steadfast love”, or “faithful love”.  If we do not understand love, we do not understand Christianity, and we cannot inherit eternal life.

It is not surprising, then, that of all the concepts in the Bible, love is the one that is most abused and distorted.  Satan knows that if he can confuse people about love, he can keep them from following Christ.  Thus, in our day, we see the word “love” applied to all sorts of sins.  “Love is love,” people say, but what they really mean by that is, “This thing that I want to call loving is the same as the love that the Bible celebrates, so it’s just as righteous as Biblical love.” 

This amounts, of course, to nothing more than rewriting the Bible to justify what we think is right.  Rather than imposing our views on the word of God, we ought instead to be imposing the views of the word of God on ourselves.  With this in mind, let’s consider what the Scriptures mean when they say, “God is love”.

Our text comes from 1 John 4, and it begins with THE COMMANDMENT TO LOVE.  Look at 1 John 4:7-8.  Notice that the confusion we talked about earlier reasonably can continue through most of these two verses.  There are plenty of people who would take “Love one another” and reinterpret it to mean, “Accept the wickedness of others because I have applied the label of love to it.”

However, this reinterpretation comes to a screeching halt when we get to the last three words of v. 8, “God is love.”  We don’t get to define love.  God does.  In fact, God is the definition of love.  Once we accept this, love stops being this vague, nebulous concept and becomes something that we know a whole lot about because we know a whole lot about God.

We begin to learn about God through the physical creation.  Our world has been marred by sin, but even in its flawed state, it still proclaims the love of God.  Every time we look up at the stars or a majestic mountain range, we see the love of God.  Every time we spend an evening laughing with family and friends, we feel the love of God.  Every time we sit down to a good meal, we taste the love of God.  God didn’t have to give us any of these experiences of beauty and joy, but He did because He is love, and love expresses itself in blessing others.

We learn still more about love by considering God in His word.  His love is evident not only in the blessings He offers to the faithful, but in His hatred for sin.  Sometimes people ask, “How could a loving God send sinners to hell?”  Well, how could He not?  Sin is selfish and evil.  It is the very opposite of everything that God is, and it inflicts incalculable injury on others, whom God loves.  If God does not punish sin, He must be indifferent to its nature and consequences, which is the very thing that a loving God cannot be.

However, punishment is not the only way that God addresses sin, which we see in THE EXAMPLE OF LOVE that He offers.  Let’s continue reading in 1 John 4:9-10.  Yes, a loving God will send sinners to hell, but He does not only send sinners to hell.  Notice that John says that we don’t know love by our love for God, but rather by His love for us.

In other words, God loves us even when we don’t love Him.  We are selfish.  We are evil.  We do nothing to deserve His love.  Nonetheless, He loves us anyway. 

Here, I think we find the answer to the biggest problem we have with love.  It’s easy to love when others love us and treat us as we think they should.  It’s much harder when they don’t.  How do we love when our spouse is a jerk to us?  How do we love when brethren slander and mistreat us?  How do we love our enemies when they are, well, being our enemies?  We continue to love in all these situations because we have learned from God’s example.

This love is revealed in two main ways.  First, He sent Jesus to live among us to show us what a perfectly loving human being looks like.  Notice that Jesus’ version of love doesn’t look like the world’s version either.  He spent a whole lot of time harshly condemning sin and sinners.  He talked more about hell than any other figure in the Bible.  Those things came from His great love just as much as His healing the sick did.

Second, Jesus didn’t merely live among us.  He died among us, not because He deserved to die, but because we did.  Jesus surrendered His life, and God surrendered His Son.  This shows the lengths to which love is willing to go.  Love doesn’t merely serve others when serving is costless.  Love is willing to serve even at the cost of tremendous self-sacrifice.  If we aren’t giving ourselves up for others and for God, we aren’t loving.

Finally, John urges us toward THE PERFECTION OF LOVE.  Consider 1 John 4:11-13.  John is very precise with his words here.  He doesn’t merely say, “If God loved us”.  He says, “If God so loved us”.  In other words, if God loved us in this way, we need to love one another in the same way. 

God doesn’t only define what love is.  He defines how we ought to be loving.  This includes not only the parts of God that we find palatable—His kindness and concern for others—but also the parts of Him that we don’t appreciate—His self-sacrifice and hatred for sin.

This is challenging for any of us, but when we succeed, we do something amazing.  We reveal that God abides in us and that His love is perfected in us.  Because God loves us, His highest goal is to teach us to love like Him.  When you get right down to it, isn’t that what every Christian parent wants for their children, for them to learn to love like God does?  When we embrace His love ourselves, we truly become His children.

That’s the goal, but it’s easy to get off track.  There are millions who believe that they are walking in the love of God who are not.  That’s a disastrous delusion, and we must avoid it.

John tells us that we can know that God and His love abide in us because He has given us His Spirit.   Sadly, some mistake their intuition for the prompting of the Spirit.  I know a brother whose wife left him because she believed the Spirit was leading her to run off with another man.  She was being led, all right, but it didn’t have anything to do with God!

Instead, we allow the Spirit to lead us when we seek guidance from the inspired word of God.  Then, the Spirit transforms us by the renewing of our minds so that we become different people.  With enough study, we train our conscience and no longer need a Bible with us to know what the Spirit wants us to do.  If we need to, we always can return to the word and check to make sure that we still are walking in love.

Justification by Works and Baptism

Monday, October 25, 2021

In the end of Romans 3 and the beginning of Romans 4, we encounter the most famous of Paul’s teachings:  justification by faith in Jesus.  Throughout the context, he contrasts it with justification by works.  Abraham was not justified by works, nor was David, nor can we be.

From this magnificent spiritual truth a host of false doctrines have sprung.  In particular, many have argued that justification by works means doing anything, but justification by faith means doing nothing.  Thus, the argument continues, baptism cannot save us because it’s a work.  Instead, we should seek salvation by praying to Jesus and acknowledging our need to Him.

There are several Scriptural problems with this claim, but one of the most prominent is its misunderstanding of works in the context of Romans.  Paul doesn’t use “works” to mean doing anything right.  He uses it to mean doing everything right. 

This, indeed, is the point of the first three chapters of Romans.  The Gentiles can’t justify themselves by works because they are sinners.  The Jews, even though they have the Law and seek to follow it, are sinners too.  They can’t justify themselves by works either.  Thus, Paul concludes in Romans 3:20 that no one can be justified in God’s sight by the works of the Law. 

In all of human history, there only has been one man who was baptized as part of justifying himself by works.  That one was Jesus.  In Matthew 3:13-15, John at first refuses to baptize Jesus because he recognizes that the Holy One is more righteous than he is.  Jesus replies, however, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  God’s prophet commanded baptism, so Jesus obeyed the command even though He had no need of forgiveness.

Jesus was justified by His obedience, but this only happened because He lived a life of unbroken obedience.  Should anyone have the temerity to call Him to account, He could assert His right to spend eternity with God because of His moral perfection.  That’s justification by works.

However, none of the rest of us seek baptism because we are fulfilling all righteousness.  We seek it because we haven’t fulfilled all righteousness.  We aren’t spiritual successes like Jesus.  We are failures, and we know it.  Our only hope lies in His power to cleanse and redeem, and through baptism, we call on His name, appealing to Him to wash away our sins.

Our baptism isn’t part of justification by works.  It’s not asking for what we deserve.  God forbid that I should ever get what I deserve!  Instead, we seek justification by faith apart from works through baptism. 

Baptism actually does what sinner’s-prayer advocates think the sinner’s prayer does.  In baptism, we don’t proudly stand before God and present our spiritual credentials.  Instead, we humble ourselves before Him and plead for His mercy, the mercy that we so desperately need and that our loving God is so eager to extend.

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