Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jesus Is Best

 A Full, Perfect, and Sufficient Sacrifice

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-15 (KJV)

Homily Text: Hebrews 9:11-14

11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;
12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.
13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:
14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
15 And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.

Do you ever wish you could go back to time when life was easier? If so, you can understand what readers of the letter to the Hebrews were experiencing.

They were Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Then life got hard. They experienced many hardships including persecution. Some of them lost family connections and property, and some had gone to jail.

Judaism was a recognized and protected by the Roman Empire. Christianity was not. So some of them were thinking about leaving Christianity and going back to Judaism, of leaving the church and going back to the synagogue.

Hebrews was written both to warn that if you leave Christianity you lose Christ. You give up…
... salvation accomplished for
salvation prophesied
... the reality for the picture
... the permanent for the temporary.

1.  Compared with the Old Testament system of worship Jesus is best.

Since we are not Jews and have never practiced Old Testament worship, we don’t have the background the original readers of Hebrews were familiar with. So it will help us if we get several things in mind about the tabernacle, the priests, and the sacrifices.

  • Think about the tabernacle as a large
rectangular tent surrounded by a fence. Inside the fence and in front of the entrance to the tabernacle there was an altar where sacrifices were made. There was also a basin where the priests washed themselves before the went into the tent.
  • The tent itself was divided into two rooms. The front and larger room was called the Holy Place and had three pieces of furniture: a table for ceremonial bread, an incense altar, and a gold lampstand.
  • The Holy Place was separated from the second room by a thick curtain.
  • The smaller room was called the Most Holy Place was the place where God revealed his glorious presence. In that room was a chest overlaid with gold called the Ark of the Covenant. The cover of the chest was pure gold and on either end were cherubim that faced one another with their wings covering the center of the cover, which was called the mercy seat.
  • There were many priests but there was one High Priest.  
  • Priests went into the outer room of the Tabernacle every day, but only the High Priest could go into the inner room and he only once a year.


  • Sacrifices were offered every day on the Altar outside the Tent.
  • However there was special day, the most holy day of the year, called the Day of Atonement. On this day blood a bull and a goat were sacrificed on the altar. Then the High Priest went into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled blood on the front of the mercy seat to atone for the sins of the people so that God could continue to live among them and not destroy them because of their sins.

Now we can better understand what the writer is telling us about Jesus.
Jesus is the High Priest of good things to come. Aaron was the first High Priest, and many others followed him. All the High Priests who came before Jesus could do no more than point to the need for a better High Priest. All of them were sinners who had to make atonement for their own sins. All of them were mortal so their priestly ministries were temporary. The sacrifices they offered were never complete but had to be offered again and again. Their ministries prophesied good things to come, but never brought those good things.. Those good things - a perfect Priest who lives forever, a perfect sacrifice that can really take away our sins - came only with Jesus.

Jesus is not only the High Priest but the sacrifice. The High Priests of the Old Testament sacrificed goats and calves, took their blood into the the Most Holy Place, and sprinkled it on the mercy seat to make atonement for sins. But the whole ritual had to be repeated year after year.  Sin was never removed by an Old Testament Priest. But, Jesus as High Priest, sacrificed himself and offered  his own blood to atone for sins - to remove them for good and forever. He obtained an eternal redemption for us. He freed us from slavery to sin, guilt, and condemnation by finally and fully paying the price of our freedom, which was the shedding of his blood.  He gives us a forever salvation.

He took his blood into the real tabernacle. The tabernacle, and especially the Most Holy Place, was where God lived among his people on earth. But God could not ever or really be contained in an earthly tent or building. God’s dwelling place is heaven. The tabernacle was built by human craftsman and it was located in creation. The earthly tabernacle was modelled on the heavenly tabernacle where God lives. Heaven was created by God and does not belong to this creation. Jesus, having sacrificed himself and shed his blood on the cross, went into heaven and, as it were, sprinkled his blood before God. That was the sacrifice that God accepted. Now our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled with God forever.

Suppose you developed very early in life a love for Mustang cars. As various gift giving occasions came around parents and relatives would buy you models, at first just toys and then kits each more complicated and detailed the the previous one. You have an impressive collection of Mustang models. Then, when you graduate from college, your parents give you a brand new Mustang. But, you say, “I’m not so sure I want the car. I have all these nice models.” You prefer the replicas to the real thing. That’s the way it was for these Jewish Christians who were thinking about giving up Jesus, the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the Reality to whom it pointed, to go back to Judaism. That’s the way it is today for any who would put anything in the place of or in addition to Jesus and his sacrifice for sin. Why would you take a picture rather than the Person in the picture? Why the shadow when you can have the Reality? Jesus is what you need, and he is all you need.

2.  Compared with the effectiveness of the Old Testament sacrifices, Jesus’s sacrifice is best.

I often spill coffee on the fronts of my tee-shirts. When my laundress puts them in washing machine with the regular detergent, the tee-shirts come back with the stains embedded. From from time to time, however, she washes them with detergent and bleach, and they come back without stains. There is a big difference between the effectiveness of detergent alone and the detergent plus bleach.

The writer of Hebrews compares the effectiveness of the sacrifices offered by the Old Testament priests and the sacrifice offered by Christ.

Old Testament Sacrifices 

In the Old Testament there were two kinds of defilement - ways that a person was unclean in God’s sight. These two wer closely related.
  • There was the defilement caused by the general sinfulness that belongs to the whole human race and the resultant defilement caused by particular acts of sin. Sin made you guilty and and condemned before God and cut you off from fellowship with him.
  • There was also ceremonial or ritual defilement which meant you could not participate in the worship at the tabernacle. One of the main ways you became defiled so you could not come participate in worship was by contact with a dead body even inadvertantly.
  • The way the guilt and condemnation of sin were removed was by the daily sin offerings and by the annual sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat. These sacrifices restored you to fellowship with God.
  • The way ritual defilement was removed involved the mixing of ashes of a sacrificed heifer and water which was then sprinkled on the defiled person. You could then have fellowship with God in worship.
  • The effect of these cleansings was very limited. They cleansed the body. They removed external defilement, so that you could have fellowship with God by participating in worship.

The sacrifice of Christ. The difference between those Old Testament sacrifices and the  sacrifice of Christ can cleanse the conscience from dead works. What are dead works? There are two kinds. One kind is life ruled by sin. Another kind of dead works is trying to be good to win acceptance with God. 
  • The first are the kinds are sins that were characteristic of the lives of Gentiles - what Paul calls “the works of the flesh.” He illustrates these in the letter to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these;  Adultery fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:19-21).
  • The other kind of dead works were more likely to be found among the Jews. The Jews were prone to try to establish their own righteousness by following the ritual and moral regulations of the Old Testament. Paul also spoke of this kind of dead works also in Galatians: “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified...For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith” (Galatians 2: 15-16; 3: 10-11)
  • Suppose you got up this morning and knew you needed to get ready to go to church. So you took a shower and put on clean clothes. You’re ready to go to church and worship God. This is something like the effect of the Old Testament sacrifices. They got you clean on the outside. But, while you are dressing your conscience begins to bother you.
  • You think perhaps of the lies you tell, or the lusts you indulge, or the malice in your heart toward another person. What if someone knew what you are really like? But God knows.
  • Or maybe your conscience goes in another direction. You think about allyour good works, and it strikes you that all your good works are are not good enough. You realize they are what St. Augustine called “splendid sins.” You know that your righteousness is really self-righteousness.
  • What can you do about these things that trouble your conscience? A shower and clean clothes can’t touch your conscience. But the blood of Jesus can. When you trust in his sacrifice that has been accepted by God, you can shut your accusing conscience up. You can say, “Yes, I am guilty of horrible sins - of action, word, thought, and heart. But Jesus blood cleanses me from all sin.” Or, “No my best good works and efforts at self-improvement  are not good enough and will never be for me to have peace with God. But, it not my good works, but the blood of Jesus that cleanses me and makes me fit for fellowship with God."

It is the cleansing of the blood of Jesus, Jesus’s sacrifice for our sin, that makes it possible for us to serve the living God.
  • Serving God means first worshiping him. By the blood of Jesus you are free to come into God’s presence to sing his praises, to offer him your prayers, to hear his Word, to feed upon his body and blood. Without the blood of Jesus no one of us can worship God in a way he accepts. But the blood of Jesus covers up our sins, our mixed motives, all our defilement and defects so that God not only accepts but delights in our worship.
  • Serving God means also living for him. How can you serve God by living for him? You need a chance to start over as though all the mess-ups and failures of the past were not there.  But how can that be? All those sins and weaknesses of the past are not imaginary; they are real. So how can you get that chance to start over? Because the blood of Jesus covers the past and cleanses you of the sins of the past. But, perhaps you think: “Well the Lord has given me a chance to start over, but I keep blowing it. I keep messing up. I am sure he has run out of patience and rejected me.” No, as long as you confess your sins, ask his forgiveness, and seek his grace for the future, the blood of Jesus will cover not just the sins and failures of the distant past, but the sins and failures of yesterday, and this morning.

We say in the service of Holy Communion that Jesus “made there (on the cross)  (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins.”  He is the perfect High Priest, who offered the perfect sacrifice for sins, entered heaven, and secured our eternal salvation.  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

World Vaccine War

World Vaccine War

If there were a vaccine for what I've got right now, I would gladly have taken it. If there were any unnatural cure for it, I would take as much as is allowed. I went to the gym on Monday and had no signs of illness. On Tuesday I woke up with a cough, and before long a Mack Truck ran over me. Coincidentally (?) I started writing this Blog on Tuesday. Once I have an idea I usually knock it out in a few hours and publish it. This is day three of effort. I am not sure if this was caused by high fructose corn syrup, corn fed beef, or lack of fresh air, but I have had more fun getting a root canal. 

What is it? Well, according to the folks at the urgent care place this morning, it is the pseudo-flu. That is, I have fever, chills, overwhelming fatigue, and an awful cough. My stomach muscles hurt so much from coughing that I act like a little girl when a paroxysm comes on. What I don't have is a positive test for the flu. The doctor says they have seen quite a few such cases. I am grateful I do not have the flu, not because this feels any better than the flu, but because I got the flu shot in October and would hate to say I was vaccinated but got the flu anyway (though they didn't guess very well about what to put in the vaccine this year). As I said, if there were a vaccine for the pseudo-flu I would first in line to get it next year.

On February 28 World Magazine published on its website "To vaccinate or not to vaccinate". The posting included your   Curmudgeon's "Vaccine Insanity" along with an evaluation by an Austin, TX, medical doctor of his view of vaccines (positive) and a statement of recommendations by the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Augusta, GA. World characterized these three contributions as the perspectives of experience, medicine, and church leaders.

As of this writing there have been over 100 responses, and these have been overwhelmingly negative. The editors have received so much flak that they have promised that other material about vaccines will be forthcoming.

I agree on one point with
a few of the respondents. With them I question the propriety of a Session's (though it consists of 1/3 medical doctors - no doubt the other 2/3 are lawyers and bankers) giving recommendations to the congregation on vaccinations. A Session would be well within its rights to adopt a policy that no children would be alllowed to participate in children's ministries who had not received the vaccinations on a list compiled by medical experts, for the Session has a right to set policies that protect the welfare of the gathered congregation. But a Session, as governing body of the church, has no more justification to advise parents about vaccinations than to advise them about diet and exercise, about whether parents should allow their sons to play football or their daughters to play softball, or about where and how children should be educated. Church leaders have no business telling parents whether or not to vaccinate their children, but they have every right to say that children who have not received required vaccinations may not be left in the nursery, or attend the Sunday School, or go to the church camp. A church leadership body that gives counsel about vaccinations steps outside its Christ-given sphere of authority and competence. The adoption of such recommendations reminds of what mischief can occur when world-and-life-view Christianity prevails and the doctrine of the spirituality of the church is neglected or denied.

Most of the other objections have themes that unfortunately seem to get their fair share (or more?) of credence among a portion of the conservative Christian community. Most of these I addressed in the vaccination Blog. There is no need to go back over them. People are gonna beleive what people are gonna believe.

However, the  most weighty of the objections against some vaccinations is moral and concerns  how some vaccines are manufactured. Some opposition to vaccines is grounded in wrong information, spread innocently or intentionally, that vaccines contain human tissue from aborted babies. This is demonstrably untrue. Vaccines do not contain human tissue aborted or otherwise.

There are, however, some vaccines, that must be cultured in human cells. From whence these cells? They are provided by laboratories that produce cell lines. What is the origin of these cell lines? They came originally from two abortions, one peformed in the U.S in 1961 and one in the U.K. in 1966.

Manufacturers of vaccines use diploid cells (cells that have two sets of chromosomes) that have been replicated from these two abortions. Vaccines do not contain human tissue, but they are cultured in genetic material which comes from those two aborted children.
Descendant cells are the medium in which these vaccines are prepared. The cell lines under consideration were begun using cells taken from one or more fetuses aborted almost 40 years ago. Since that time the cell lines have grown independently. It is important to note that descendant cells are not the cells of the aborted child. They never, themselves, formed a part of the victim's body.(National Catholic Bioethics Center)

Does the origin of these cell lines mean that it is morally wrong to use vaccines that require use of them? The Roman Catholic Church, which is staunchly anti-abortion, acknowledges that the issue is not uncomplicated but, nevertheless, holds that such vaccines may be (and perhaps should be) used while believers should work for a time when vaccines can be produced without the use of these cell lines.
One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them. (National Catholic Bioethics Center)
The issue of the relationship between two 1960s abortions and today's vaccines raises the issue of degrees of separation from evil. In the New Testament congregation of Corinth questions arose about whether it was wrong for Christians to eat meat purchased from the market if it came from worship in pagan temples. Would a Christian be supporting, even participating in pagan worship, if he ate meat from a pagan temple. Should a Christian ask the meat market, "Where did this beef come from? Did you get it from the pagan temple?" Paul said,"No. Ask no questions for conscience's sake."

Now suppose an innocent person were murdered by the Mafia. You need a cornea transplant to save your eyesight. Would you take the cornea knowing how it became available? You are free to do so. The man was murdered though not with the intent of providing you with a cornea. You are not culpable in his murder if you accept the cornea that was harvested from his body. Nor do I think Christians are culpable if they receive or allow their children to receive vaccines that come from the cell lines that came from those two abortions. Neither abortion was performed for the purpose of obtaining cell lines for manufacturing vaccines.

One commenter took me to task for my humorous comment about being willing to make the sacrifices of eating corn fed beef and pecan pie made with corn syrup:
This statement, with a distinct tone of arrogance, coming from someone who hopefully agrees that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, is appalling. It would seem that he believes the ingestion of toxic substances passing as "food" will have no effect on others; it's simply his choice, or as he chides, his "sacrifice."... Are we not wonderfully made? Did God not design us with immune systems to adjust, adapt, nurture, and heal? Why would we purposefully consume things that would compromise such a miraculous sustainable system? Food is medicine. Pursuing our health (to the best of our ability) is a means of praising God.

I am no fan of dying. But, I hate to break it to the commenter. We're all going to die. Remember Jackie Kennedy. When diagnosed with lymphoma she asked, "Why did I do all those sit-ups?


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Christian PDAs

Christian PDAs

Gospel: Matthew 6:1-18 (KJV)

1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

I had been over the weekend in Houston, was tired, and my eyes were heavy as soon as I took my seat on the airplane. However, a couple - an older man and a younger woman - took seats a couple of rows ahead. I kept fighting to keep my eyes open because the couple were so interesting. They were in lust, and maybe drunk, and pretty soon their physical involvement became both inappropriate and embarrassing. The stewardess came several times to ask them to stop but to no avail. It was so bad that they were detained on the plane when we landed.

What do you think about PDAs - public displays of affection? They can be natural and sincere, even if inappropriate. But other times you get the impression that at least part of what the couple want is for people to notice what they are doing.

Jesus challenges us about our public displays of spirituality. Do we do what we do for God or to impress others?

1. The Principle

The saying in verse one gives us the principle which guides the rest of what Jesus says in these 18 verses. In our King James version it reads, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” However, all modern translations say, “Beware of doing your acts of righteousness before other people.” The exact wording varies but in all of them Jesus talks about “righteousness” not “almsgiving.” The reason for this change is that best manuscripts have the Greek word for righteousness in verse one.

The word “righteousness” means “right-ness.” The nature of God is righteous, and all of God’s acts are righteous. We also can have righteousness. Often the word refers to our “justification” or our righteous standing before God. This righteousness is not found in us, but in Christ. It is not anything we are or anything we do. When we put our faith in Christ, God declares us righteous, counting Christ’s righteousness as ours.

But there are other aspects of righteousness for believers. We do righteous deeds that flow from faith in Christ. We do righteous deeds when we act out of love for God and our neighbor, when we obey the Ten Commandments, when we do good works.

But here Jesus is talking about a particular kind of righteous deeds - righteous acts that involve our devotion to God that are done in public and private acts of worship. Then he goes on to give us a warning about three in particular - almsgiving in verses 2 - 4, praying in verses 3 - 15, and fasting in verses 16 - 18.

He tells us to take heed or be careful when we do these things because there is a danger. We can do these things “before men, to be seen of them.”

Why do we do the things we do? Do we do them for God? Or do we do them to be seen by others who will take note of what we do and praise us for it? When we do these things, are we un-self-conscious or are we spectators watching ourselves and hoping others will, too? Jesus tells us to be careful about our motives.

He also warns us of the consequence of doing these righteous acts to be seen and congratulated by others. If we do that, their recognition will be our reward. We will forfeit the approval and reward of our Father in heaven. If we seek and get the praise from others, we will not have praise from the Father in heaven for whom we claim we are doing these acts of righteousness.

2. The Practices

Jesus applies the principle of doing acts of righteousness, not to be noticed by other people but for God, to three practices.

a. Almsgiving

For the Jews almsgiving was a very important religious duty. Alms were given to help the poor, and helping the poor was part an expression of their religious devotion. Giving for us too, as Christians, is an act of worship which is why we include giving in the liturgy. Part of our regular giving is almsgiving, for the gifts are used to help when needs arise within the congregation. We also encourage specific almsgiving above regular giving to support various needs. Right now we have our mite boxes which we can fill with change and cash or checks so that we as Anglicans can help those who live in developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Jesus points out a practice of some Jews when they were taking their alms to the synagogue. They would hire a band to go ahead of them so that people would notice them and say, “There goes brother Jacob taking his alms to the synagogue. What a good man he is! Thank you, brother Jacob for your generosity! ” We don’t know if Jesus described a real practice of having trumpets accompany them to the synagogue or whether he was using hyperbole to point out how important it was to these givers to be noticed.

What Jesus is clear about is that such givers are hypocrites. The word “hypocrite” comes from the world of Greek theater. It means “actor,” a person who assumes a character and plays a role. Greek actors often wore masks to cover their faces. They were one thing according to the mask, another behind the mask. Those Jews who called attention to their almsgiving were playing a role, wanting others to notice and applaud, while their hearts were not generous. They got the reward they wanted - recognition and praise from others - but they did not please God.

Jesus says to us, his disciples, “When you give, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” If you put your offering in the plate with your right hand, make sure your left hand doesn’t see what your right hand does. That is not literally possible, but Jesus’ point is, “Don’t dwell on your giving. Don’t go over it in your mind. Be as unconscious of what you are doing as possible. Forget about it as soon as possible.” Otherwise you might start congratulating yourself. And when you do that, you are no longer giving for the sake of God and others. “Do your giving in secret.” If you’re really doing it for God, you don’t need anyone else to know what you are doing. God sees what you do in secret; he knows when you give and how much. At the right time he will acknowledge and reward the giving you do because you love him and others.

b. Praying

Next Jesus turns to prayer, which for us, as it was for the Jews, is essential for our worship and our whole relationship with God. In prayer we adore and thank God, confess our sins, and ask for God to bless us and others.

Jesus’s warnings about prayer focus on both the hypocrites and the pagans.

Hypocritical Jews love to pray standing on the street corners and in the synagogues. They want to be noticed. They are seeking the attention of other people. They want others to say, “Look there at brother Joshua. He is such a godly man. He must love God very much. Look at him praying.” Again those who pray in order to impress and get praise have their reward immediately in the recognition they get.

Jesus tells us to go into our closets, shut the doors, and to pray to the Father who is in secret. His hearing of us is not based on other’s hearing us. Jesus went off by himself without his disciples to pray to his Father. At the moment of greatest crisis, as he wrestled with the will of God in the Garden of Gethsemane, he left even those closest to him, Peter, James, and John, and opened his heart to his Father in private. If we are really praying to God, we don’t need others to know that we are praying.

It’s clear that Jesus is not telling us not ever to pray in public as we do in worship. Even the Lord’s Prayer assumes we will pray in the presence of others, for we use the plural pronoun “our.” What Jesus is warning us against is wanting others to notice and honor us for our prayers - the words we say and the fervency with which we offer them. We should pray, as we should give, as unselfconsciously as possible, praying to God not for man to notice.

Pagans pray to get God’s attention. They think that they will get God’s attention by repetition of his name and multiplication of words. When Elijah met the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel to find out whether the LORD or Baal was God, the pagan prophets called out, “O Baal, answer us!” from morning till noon. But, there was no response, so when noon passed they started cutting themselves and loudly crying to Baal, and continued on well into the afternoon.

Jesus, says, “God does not hear you because you keep repeating his name or because you pile up many words. Just address him as Father and say what you have to say.” Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer to be prayed and as a model to teach us about prayer. We address God, “Our Father” and then there six concise and clear requests - three about God, that his name may be hallowed, his kingdom may come, and his will be done; and then three about us, that our daily needs may be met, that our sins may be forgiven, and that we may be either kept from temptation or protected against evil in temptation. 

c. Fasting

The third religious practice Jesus calls our attention to is fasting. Fasting is abstaining from food. Fasts can be partial or total, for a brief time or a more extended time. In the Old Testament there was only one prescribed day of fasting, the Day of Atonement. However, that did not mean that individuals could not fast at other times or that the nation could not be called to fast to repent and seek God’s favor.

There is no record of Jesus having fasted, though we can assume he did on the Day of Atonement. Nor is there any record of his disciples fasting. He was asked on one occasion why John the Baptist’s disciples fasted and his did not, and Jesus said, “It’s not appropriate to fast while the bridegroom is still present.” On the other hand, the Pharisee who went to the temple to pray told God, “I fast twice a week.” There does not seem to be an emphasis on fasting in the life of the New Testament churches. But the fact that Jesus says, “When you fast,” makes clear that he expects there to be times when his disciples will fast.

His concern is with how we go about fasting when we do. Again he warns us not to be like the hypocrites. Their concern, as with almsgiving and prayer, is the people will notice what they are doing. When they fasted, they changed their daily routines. They did not wash their faces or put oil their heads. We might say that they did not shower and shave, or they did not brush their hair and put on make-up. Rather they looked gloomy and did things like pour ashes over their heads. They put on a special fasting look so that people would look at them and know they were fasting. They wanted people to say, “Look at brother, Andrew, how sad he is, and how he doesn’t even pay attention to how he looks. He must be fasting and afflicting himself before God. He must be very devoted to God!”

Jesus says to us, “Don’t call attention to yourself when you fast. If you are going to fast, go about your daily life as you would if you were not fasting. Look cheerful. Do the usual preparations for going out in public.” If you are fasting to deny yourself, to repent of your sins, and to seek God for his blessings, let that be between you and God. He will know that you’re fasting and why. That’s all that matters. Let God take care of rewarding you in his time and way.

3. The Paternal

If we stopped where we are now, we might turn this into a piece of legalistic teaching about how we practice Christianity. Don’t be like the hypocrites and pagans when you give, pray, and fast. Be better than they were. Be a good Christian.

But that misses what Jesus is saying. There is a word that we might miss that Jesus uses nine times and each time with the personal possessive pronoun. The word is Father, your Father, our Father.

Father is a word that belongs to a personal relationship, the relationship between a son or daughter and a father. The word is not as formal as it may sound in our ears, particularly our southern ears. Jesus spoke not Greek but Aramaic, and the Aramaic word for father is Abba. Abba is a word used by a child to speak to his father. When children are learning to talk they often repeat a syllable. Wawa is water. Mama is mother. Dada is father. In Aramaic abba is father.

When the father-child relationship is healthy, the child feels secure. He is confident his father loves him and will take care of him. When the child is in trouble, he does not call out, “Mr. Jones, help me,” but, “Dad, I need you. Help me.”

The problem for both the hypocrites and the pagans was that they did not know God as Father.

The hypocrites needed affirmation from others because they were not confident of affirmation from God. They put on performances hoping others would notice them and praise them. They were not secure in father-child relationship. They needed to get the attaboys from others who saw their acts of devotion, because they did not sense that God saw and was pleased with them. For them, religion was performance - both an act to be put on and a list of things to do to earn God’s favor.

The pagans needed to get the attention of an inattentive God and to try to wrest what they needed from an unwilling God. So they called out his name over and over to get try to get his attention and repeated words over and over again to try to get him to give them what they needed. They did not know God as a loving and caring Father.

The problem we have is that the hypocrites’ and pagans’ way of relating to God are natural to us and deeply ingrained in us. Instead of giving, praying, and fasting confident of our Father’s attention and approval we try to perform to get his approval and we look to others to approve us since we don’t sense that God notices and approves. Instead of living confident of God’s love and care we think of him as a distant and stingy God from whom we must try to wrangle a blessing here and there.

What’s the cure for this? It is to know God as our Father in Jesus Christ. God’s approval is not earned by our performance but by Christ’s performance for us. We obtain God’s blessings not by how many words we say in prayer but by coming to him in Jesus' name. When we are confident in God’s love because of what Christ has done for us, then we won’t need to do our acts of righteousness before men to be seen of them. When we are confident of God’s generosity that he gave us Christ, then we can approach him as our Father who loves and cares.

Here at the Table of our Lord, we focus not on ourselves but on Christ, not on what we have to give him but what he freely gives us. In Christ we know God Almighty as our heavenly Father who of his tender mercy gave Christ to suffer upon the cross for our redemption.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Who Is a Real Christian? Part II: Are You Really Saved?

Brother, Are You Really Saved?

A man enters a crowded theater and asks a patron, "Is that seat saved?" The man sitting in the adjoining seat replies,"No, are you?"* Some fundamentalists would go on to ask the man sitting next to the unsaved seat,"What were you, a true Christian, doing in a movie theater in first place and associating with an unsaved seat? Movie theater today, gambling, smoking, dancing, and behaving boisterously on public conveyances tomorrow." (During my incarceration in a Christian school I had to sign a annual pledge not to engage in those last four.) 

We have pointed to two factors that must be considered to answer the question, "What is a true Christian?". The sacramental and the doctrinal. (Who Is a Real Christian?: Part I) Both of these are objective in nature, the act of baptism and a body of doctrine. We now move to two subjective considerations, the experimental and the evidential. You may be baptized and may affirm the Nicene Creed and other creeds and confessions of faith, but that does not mean you are saved. The questions now are: (1) Have savingly experienced the faith? and (2) Are there evidences that indicate you have saving faith?

Let's consider some questions that may help us feel the force of applying these two tests of true Christianity:

Was John W. Nevin, who was much disturbed when in college he was pressed about his Christian experience, and who asserted that the normal path to Christian faith was catechesis not experience? What about evangelical Anglican poet, William Cowper, who had experiences and wrote movingly about them, but attempted suicide several times and died believing himself lost forever? What about Calvinistic author, A.W. Pink, who in his last years never attended public worship? What about L'Abri's Francis Schaeffer who had a bad temper? What about the Westminster New Testament scholar, Ned Stonehouse, who had a fatal heart attack while watching baseball on TV on a Sunday afternoon? What about Fuller's George Eldon Ladd, who perhaps more any other has shaped evangelical thinking about the kingdom of God, but who neglected his family, had an unhappy marriage, and drank heavily? What about Johnny Cash who testified at Billy Graham Crusades and fought with addiction almost his whole life? The problem with listing such cases is that, once you start, where do you stop? There is no lack of professing Christians whose experience and conduct raise questions for some about whether they were or are "really saved" or "true Christians."

What about you? What about me? 

Experimental. "Experimental" is an old way of speaking about Christian experience. It is obvious that, while baptism in an important sense makes one a Christian, it is possible to be baptized and not be a "true" Christian, unless one believes that baptism makes one (but permanently or impermanently?) a "true" Christian. Similarly saying the Nicene Creed even with understanding, or affirming imputation and forensic justification intelligently does not a "true" Christian make.

There must be some sort of personal (not leaving out the communal) appropriation of the truths confessed. In every Christian tradition, at least in the West, this appropriation is or at least includes "faith" - belief in the Triune God, the incarnate Son, in Jesus Christ as Savior . Whatever the content held to be necessary, it must be believed by you ("I believe in God the Father...etc.)   

But the question is: Faith saves, but what is the faith that saves? At this point all sorts of qualifications are made. 

Fundamentalist evangelicals are fond of putting this in terms of Jesus's coming into your heart: "Have you asked Jesus into your heart?" I heard that many times as a youngster and asked him in many times, but I am still confused as what asking Jesus into my heart is and, more important, what asking Jesus into my heart has to do with his saving me, and, still more important, where the Bible even implies that this is the response to the Gospel. With this question, faith becomes an inward experience:

If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy;
Let Jesus come into your heart;
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy;
Let Jesus come into your heart.
Your sins He'll wash away,
Your night He'll turn to day,
Your life He'll make it over anew;
If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy;
Let Jesus come into your heart.

Some emphasize the three elements that together are saving faith: Knowledge. Belief. Trust. The last two are not so easy. What if I think I believe but also have doubts? Then, if I believe, how do I know if I really trusting?

Sometimes people are urged to consider a distinction between having head knowledge only (understanding the content of the faith) and both head and heart knowledge. Heart knowledge is presented as making personal what before was intellectual: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior? Maybe you knew he was other people's Savior. That he could be your Savior. Maybe you even thought that he was your Savior. But do you have a personal relationship with him?" This heart knowledge is often considered a transformative experience that changes the inward and outward life.

Jonathan Edwards, honored as one of America's great thinkers and also as an experimental Calvinist preacher, in his sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light (which I read and wrote a paper on for an American Lit class at the University of West Florida) speaks of a direct work of the Spirit upon the heart. This "unnatural" work is distinct from conviction of sin and understanding of Scripture which can be "natural":
This doctrine may well put us upon examining ourselves, whether we have ever had this divine light, that has been described, let into our souls. If there be such a thing indeed, and it be not only a notion or whimsy of persons of weak and distempered brains, then doubtless it is a thing of great importance, whether we have thus been taught by the Spirit of God; whether the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, hath shined unto us, giving us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; whether we have seen the Son, and believed on him, or have that faith of gospel-doctrines which arises from a spiritual sight of Christ. 
All may hence be exhorted earnestly to seek this spiritual light. To influence and move to it, the following things may be considered. 
This light is such as effectually influences the inclination, and changes the nature of the soul. It assimilates the nature to the divine nature, and changes the soul into an image of the same glory that is beheld. 
 As Edwards says, this calls for us to examine ourselves. "Has this happened to me?" And this may become the substance of the profession of faith, both what the person professing feels he needs to say and what others may think he needs to say to indicate he is a true Christian. Faith is not, "I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior," but, "I was illumined by the Holy Spirit," or "I have been born again," or, "I was strangely warmed", or, "Then I closed with Christ," etc. This experience also becomes the or at least a critical component of assurance of salvation.

There must be an appropriation of Christianity by faith. All Christian churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Charismatic in one way or another say so. But evangelicals who place an emphasis experience, whether they are Arminian or Calvinist, put such an emphasis on experience that they end up pressing people, explicitly or implicitly, to ask, "Am I really saved? Do I truly have it? What is the state of my heart?"

Tim Bayly, the worship-with-a-rock-band, paedo-or-credo-baptism-your-choice, patriarch found fault with my explanation of having my becoming an Anglican:
In that explanation, the part I thought most telling was this reason for his preference for Anglican Prayer Book worship: "It is a relief to be an observant, practicing Christian, which does not mean the heart is not engaged but rather that I can worship without being asked or being obligated to ask myself what is really transpiring internally." 
I'm certain our good Anglican brothers on this blog including, especially, Roger du Barry and Bill Mouser will cringe at this commendation of Prayer Book worship. Neither of their ministries reject the distinction between circumcised foreskins and circumcised hearts, I'm confident. But I trust they will understand when I point to these words by this recent convert to Anglicanism from the PCA as a good example of one real danger of turning away from historic Reformed worship to Prayer Book worship.
It's not enough to be "observant, practicing Christian, which does not mean the heart is not engaged...". You have to keep peeking at your circumcision. 

Evidential. You are baptized. You confess true doctrine. You believe what you confess and may even have had experiences. But there is yet another factor to be considered: whether there are evidences that your faith is genuine, and, in the case of experiences, whether they are natural or Spiritual. So you get sermons and books such as, "True Conversion: Rare and Difficult," "The Almost Christian Discovered," and The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character.

One of the problems that looking to evidences is meant to address is hypocrisy. Like the poor, hypocrites are with us always. Hypocrites are "actors" who play the part of Christian but are not real. Some know they are putting on an act, while others may be such good actors they fool themselves. One of the ways of unmasking hypocrites is by the examination of evidences. Hypocrites "talk the talk" but may not "walk the walk." But hypocrites may both "talk the talk" and "walk the walk" but still not be real. Evidences, even if not infallible proof, are nevertheless helpful to the exposing of hypocrisy. 

Another problem addressed by an emphasis on evidences is what some Calvinists call "easy believism" or the "once saved always saved" version of Christianity. This is an evangelical version of "salvation by baptism." If some believe that all the baptized are infallibly and eternally saved, this kind of evangelicalism asserts that all  who have raised a hand, and/or walked an aisle, and/or prayed a prayer are saved no matter what one does or does not do after the act of belief. 

This is accompanied often by the "carnal Christian" teaching that there are three kinds of people - unbelievers, "carnal" believers whose lives are not changed when they believe, and spiritual Christians who have yielded to the Spirit and made Christ Lord of their lives. The issue is the second group - the saved whose lives are no different from the unsaved. An emphasis on evidences may show the "carnal" believer that he/she is not a believer at all.

Evidences are relevant not just to hypocrites and carnal Christians but to otherwise sincere and serious professing Christians. It is still possible that you are not really converted. There needs to be a closer look at the evidences in your life. Profession of the true faith is not evidence of conversion. Experiences are not evidence of conversion. A moral life is not evidence of conversion. You've got to look beneath into the motives and affections of the heart and beyond to thoroughness and permanence of obedience to prove yourself a real Christian. A closer consideration of evidences may reveal to you that you are not really saved.

It is with regard to evidences that there is an interesting intersection (or so it appears to my mind) between some who embrace the new perspective on Paul regarding justification and those who affirm the historic Protestant doctrine of justification. The intersection has to do with obedience and good works. For the new perspective, justification is not about one's standing before God but one's standing within the church. Justification is relational, not forensic, and a person who who lives out his relationship to God as a faithful member of the covenant community will live in obedience to God and perform good works which will vindicate him/her on the day of judgment. On the other hand some who, as a matter of the logic of doctrine, hold to justification as forensic declaration and to faith as the sole instrument of reception seem practically uncomfortable with it. They don't want to state the doctrine too strongly for fear that it would produce indifference and antinominaism. So they warn that saving faith can never be considered apart from the evidence of obedience and that justification must be proved by its being followed by the evidence of good works. Justifcation means you are simultaneouly righteous in Christ and sinner in heart and life, but don't rest in that too much. Check out those evidences.

The problem with evidences is that even consideration of evidences may not get the job done. You may have evidences that you and others think satisfactory yet not have the real thing.

What about me? I have said two things over and again for years now: 

(1) If I am not saved on the basis of what Christ did for me not to me, outside of me not in me, by a righteousness wholly his and not mine, then I won't be going through the pearly gates. 

(2) If the man Paul describes in Romans 7: 14-25 is not Paul the regenerate man, rather than Paul the unregenerate man, then I won't be walking those streets of gold. 

* Credit goes to my old friend and now Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Dan Morse, for reminding me of this old joke.