Saturday, October 22, 2016

A form of Godliness

It would be a terrible mistake to think I'm sitting at the end of the path, telling people how to arrive like I have arrived. Let's be clear that I write about things I've glimpsed, not things I've mastered.

Scripture warns about "a form of piety" without its power (2 Timothy 3:1–5). The more godly the path we attempt to walk, the more we need to be careful of this warning. We might remember Peter stepping out of the boat (Matthew 14:26–32). Had he stayed in the boat, he would have had no trouble staying above the water. But once he stepped out the boat, he was in a place where only Divine power could keep him up.

There is a path the vulture's eye hasn't seen (Job 28:7). We can't find it on our own. God doesn't really command us to do things we can do: He only really commands us to do what we can't. That's precisely why Jeremiah 17:5–9 warns against confidence in man. God's not interested in what man can do, but in what one Man has done. The more closely we try to walk with that Man, the more dangerous it will be to attempt it in anything but His power.

Here's an example: I've heard many, many talks about church order among "brethren". With very few exceptions, what I've actually seen are attempts by sincere believers to maintain proper church order in the power and energy of the flesh.

Of course church order is important, or Scripture wouldn't bring it up. Reading 1 Corinthians 14:26 was a real pivot point in my life, because I realized I'd never actually seen it practiced. Church order is absolutely part of the Whole Counsel of God, and learning about it should be life-changing.

But 2 Timothy 3:5 specifically warns about getting the form right while not having the power. It's warning about people who try to do the right thing from the wrong source. That's the error of the Galatians: thinking it's possible to start out in the power of the Spirit and finish in the power of flesh (Galatians 3:3).

J. N. Darby wrote:

[O]ur worship falls back into the flesh; our prayers (or praying well) form what is sometimes called a gift of prayer, than which nothing often is more sorrowful (a fluent rehearsal of known truths and principles, instead of communion and the expression of praise and thanksgiving in the joy of communion, and even of our wants and desires in the unction of the Spirit); our singing, pleasure of the ear, taste in music, and expressions in which we sympathise – all a form in the flesh, and not communion in the Spirit. All this is evil; the Spirit of God owns it not; it is not in spirit and in truth; it is really iniquity. ("Worship in the Flesh", Synopsis, Leviticus 3)

It's a very serious danger, but it's subtle. You can only fall into it when you're trying to do the right thing.

If you spend any time at all among "brethren", you'll hear guilt trips about silence in the meetings. For some reason, the very same people who most loudly condemn denominational churches for having clergymen ("they're not being led of the Spirit") hesitate least to pressure younger men to speak up. I'll be honest, the majority of times I've seen a younger man cave to the pressure and speak up in the meetings, I wished he'd kept silent.

We still haven't learned this lesson: it's not enough to do the right thing, we have to do it the right way. At the slightest provocation, we rest on the power of flesh. We still haven't learned Jeremiah 17:5–9. We allow our embarrassment goad us into trying to act when we should be sitting quietly, waiting on the Lord. I've heard Robert talk about Isaiah 40:30–31, pointing out that it's a promise. Think about that for a few moments. And then think about this: waiting on the Lord isn't easy. We're all willing to wait for about as long as it takes for the guy at the drive-through to make us a burger. But the Lord isn't on the drive-through schedule: He might make us wait a lot longer. Are we willing to wait for His timing?

Here I am putting the "assembly" back into "Assembly Quest".

Again, I am talking about something I have rarely seen, and even more rarely experienced. I'm not telling you to live like me, I'm telling you we both need to learn to wait on the Lord. And once the Lord has shown us something from His word, once we have seen a truth we need to live out, then we step into the truly dangerous realm: the place where we're tempted to have a form of godliness without its power.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The one you feed

Alan gave me permission to quote one of his emails:

This mode of "the one we feed grows" teaching sometimes goes further and states that, when we feed one exclusively, the other grows weaker and weaker. This is, in my opinion, very dangerous doctrine because, while the nature that is "starved" may grow less prominent in our daily consciousness, the flesh nature undergoes no change whatsoever – it is utterly and irreversibly corrupt. I can tell you from sad experience that, if I assume that my flesh nature has become significantly "weakened", and I indulge it in any way (letting my thoughts run in an improper direction, for example), I very soon find that it is not only not weakened, but that it re-asserts itself with full ferocity! This is truly the fruit of not believing what the Word says, and is literally walking in death (because the "old man" IS dead!).

Thursday, October 20, 2016


So we've discussed how the New Testament, especially the Epistles, has two underlying assumptions when it discusses the Christian life:

  1. we have experienced new birth
  2. we are abiding in Christ
That is, the commands in the New Testament were never intended for those who haven't been born again; and they really can't be obeyed by our own efforts.

So really the Christian life is the work of God in me, as opposed to my efforts. But we've already discussed how Christianity is really a sort of active passivity: I can't do it myself, but God expects me to be onboard.

There really is human responsibility in the New Testament: I'm not going to experience what God has for me in Christ if I just decide to sit on my sofa with football and beer and wait for Christ to work in me. That might be a better approach than what most Christians are trying, but it's not really what we're called to.

I've tried the "football and beer" approach to Christianity. It doesn't work, because it denies my identification with Christ. Scripture says I have died with Christ (Galatians 2:19–20, Colossians 3:3). It says I've died to sin (Romans 6:11), to the Law (Romans 7:4), and to the world (Galatians 6:14). If I just sink into the world, then I'm really denying that I've died to it. How do I expect my life to look, if I deny in practice what Scripture asserts is the starting point? I've put myself into a position God will not bless.

No, I'm not speaking out against football or baseball or even hockey. But I am saying that if we live like we're alive in the world, then find ourselves in Romans 8:12–13. We find ourselves returning to what we've supposedly left behind. I can say from personal experience that it's possible to go from Romans 8:3 to Romans 8:13 shockingly quickly.

Colossians 3:1–4 is a powerful description of the Christian life. It starts out with the command to "seek those things above, where Christ is." Why? Because my life here has ended. My life is up there now, and I ought to be paying attention to that.

Several years ago I was talking with my daughter about baptism. She was probably six or seven at the time, and I was telling her that baptism really means "I'm done with this world". She said to me, "So what you're saying is that we're here on a business trip, not a vacation."

Think about that: we're here on business, not on a holiday. Yes, we live here. Yes, we have certain responsibilities here. Yes, there is even a sense of godly worldliness (1 Corinthians 7:32–34). But we're not called to make this our home, nor our source of joy, nor our source of meaning. We're here on business, not pleasure.

Robert pointed out 2 Corinthians 3:18. As far as I know, that's the only verse in Scripture that actually tells us how to be like Christ. What does it say? If you want to be like Christ, you need to look at Him. (And someday we'll get a really good look, 1 John 3:2.) Isn't that just what Colossians 3:1 is saying?

There's a lot more to be said, but this seems like the place to stop for now.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A new place, new rules

We established that new heart is necessary for a Christian walk. That's the underlying assumption of the Epistles, we are new creations.

Now, as we read the New Testament with the assumption of new birth, we find a surprising feature: a new heart is necessary, but it's not sufficient. It's not just that God has given us new hearts and set us back to live better. No, God has placed us into an entirely new position: He's put us in a new place where the old rules just don't work.

When Moses brought the people to the Jordan river, he warned them that the rules for Canaan aren't the rules for Egypt (Deuteronomy 11:10–15). In Egypt they got crops by carrying water from the river out to the fields to water them. That won't work in Canaan, he warned. You can't force crops to grow in Canaan like you can in Egypt. In Canaan you depend on God for the crops: you rely on Him to bring the rains.

To use that language, we've come into a new land too: a land where human effort doesn't work. We've come to a place where we depend on God to send us the rains in season. So when we survey our lives and we don't see a lot of fruit there, we shouldn't decide we need better irrigation equipment. We need to heed Moses' warning: the rules are different here. What worked in Egypt won't work in Canaan.

Adam's creation is all about human effort: it's a lot like Moses described Egypt. If there's no water you just need to go out there and get some. The new creation's not like that. In fact, that sort of thing is counter-productive in the new creation.

So how do we get fruit in this new creation? The Lord Jesus said it very simply, "He that abides in me and I in him, *he* bears much fruit; for without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:4–5). In this new place where we've been brought, fruit is solely the result of abiding in Christ.

And so we're back to Philippians 3:9. What does it mean to be "in Christ?" It means to have nothing of our own to offer to God. It means we stand before God and say, "Christ is my righteousness". That's where fruit comes from in the new creation.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A new heart

Scripture insists that fallen man needs an entirely new start to walk with God. It's not enough to have forgiveness of sins, nor justification, nor redemption, nor even atonement. Israel under Law had all these, but it wasn't enough. Isaiah 5 describes God as the owner of a vineyard, looking for fruit in it. Finding none, He asks, "What more could I have done?" (Isaiah 5:4). The fruit God was looking for from Israel needed something more. It needed a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26).

Israel's history under the Law was an experiment demonstrating that fallen man can't please God (Romans 3:20). God gave the nation His Law with the promise that if they kept it they would be blessed (Exodus 19:1–6). By the time they got from Sinai to the Jordan, they had proven they could not. Darby comments on the beginning of Deuteronomy:

That which strikes one in the first chapters is, the pains that Jehovah takes to present all possible motives to that poor people to lead them to obedience, in order that they may be blessed. These things, which ought at least to have touched the heart, served, alas! only to prove its hardness, and to shew that, if man is to be blessed, God must give him a new heart, as it is written in the chapter which closes the second part of His exhortations to obedience: "Yet Jehovah hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day" (chap. 29: 4). (Synopsis, Volume 1)

When we come to the time of the Babylonian Captivity, the prophets are declaring that God will give a New Covenant. Jeremiah describes the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–40. He says it will be "not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day of my taking them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke" (Jeremiah 31:32). Ezekiel's description of the New Covenant (Ezekiel 36:24–38; Ezekiel 37:15–28) hinges on God giving the people "a new heart" (Ezekiel 36:26), Jeremiah talks about God writing His laws on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).

(Interestingly, Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 37, and Hosea 14 all say the New Covenant will be made when God brings back Ephraim and the ten tribes, restoring all twelve tribes of Israel back into a single nation.)

So by the end of the Old Testament, it's plain from Israel's history under Law that we need a new heart to obey God. Fallen man – even justified, forgiven, delivered, instructed, and rebuked fallen man – can't do it. There needs to be a new creation.

When the Lord Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, He insists a man can't see God's kingdom unless he's been born again (John 3:3). When Nicodemus cavils on this point, the Lord Jesus tells him a ruler of Israel ought to know that a new birth is needed (John 3:10). Why does the Lord Jesus say a ruler of Israel ought to know this already? Because the Old Testament explicitly teaches the need of a new birth: that's the whole point of Deuteronomy 29:4 and Ezekiel 36:26.

Every single command in the New Testament must be understood in light of this: God is not interested in the "good works" done from an unregenerate heart. God's not impressed by unregenerate men and women, even if they're good. Every single command in the New Testament assumes new creation as the starting point.

There's more to it, of course; but this is the starting point. Have you been born again?

(Since I mentioned Isaiah 5, let me recommend a message by H. E. Hayhoe, "Key to the Old Testament". He says Isaiah 5 is the key to understanding the whole Old Testament. That message is worth your time.)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The best of me

A couple years ago I was struck with the thought that my family, friends, and co-workers don't need to see me. They don't need to see the very best version of me that exists, or even the best version that could exist. They need to see the life of Jesus in my mortal body (2 Corinthians 4:11).

There's no shortage of "ministry" out there telling Christians how they can live better. But for the most part, it leads to attempting to improve what we were in Adam. What the New Testament – especially the Pauline epistles – teaches is not that Christ has come to improve Adam's race, but that Christ has come to replace it (2 Corinthians 15:45–49).

Of course we're still in Adam's world, and we're still in Adamic bodies. A day is coming when the Lord Jesus will come to take us out of this world (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18) and change these bodies to be like His (Philippians 3:20–21). But right now we have a distinct and unique place in God's purpose: God has been pleased to put something of immense value into "earthen vessels" (2 Corinthians 4:6–7). Scripture tells us exactly why: because He wants it to be obvious that it's His power and not ours that's on display (2 Corinthians 4:7).

There is an underlying assumption to all this: "they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:8). What God knows – what He demonstrated in sending His Son – is that Adam's race is not merely guilty, but also lost. It's not just that Adam's race is sinful, but they are hostile to God (Romans 8:7). When we try as Adam's children to please God, we find we cannot. We need to take our place with Christ – dead and risen with Him – before we can "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4).

For many years I thought those statements were figurative – perhaps even romantic. Now I accept them as very literally true. God sees me as having died with Christ: my life as a child of Adam has come to an end. If I want to live the life that pleases God, I need to understand that it's got to be life from an entirely new source, on an entirely new principle. The life that pleases God is the life of His Son. It's not that I imitate Christ, it's that He Himself is to be my life (Colossians 3:4). The Lord Jesus said there's no pleasing God unless we "abide in Him" (John 15:4). This isn't a metaphorical description of the Christian life: it's an all-too-real summary of what we were as children of Adam. Without an entirely new life from an entirely new source, we can't please God.

Christ and Adam are divided by death. Christ has died (Romans 6:1–4), and death is now between Him and Adam. So if we want to please God, we need to be with Christ, not with Adam. This isn't some metaphorical exhortation to "die to self". This the plain statement that as far as God's concerned, I have died with Christ. As far as God's concerned, I was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:11). The question for me isn't whether I have to die, but whether I'm willing to accept God's estimation that I have already died.

The prevalent concept of Christianity among evangelical Christians is that God has forgiven us all our sins, and now we live to please Him. We fail often, of course, but when we confess our sins, He forgives us our sins (1 John 1:9).

That's not what the Scripture teaches.

Scripture teaches an entirely new life, the life of Jesus manifested in fallen bodies of men and women who have given up trying to find something in themselves that pleases God (Philippians 3:9). Being in Christ – having no righteousness of our own – we look to Him to be everything for us (1 Corinthians 1:26–31). We accept that our life has ended, and we are now in an entirely new realm (Colossians 3:1–4). We are content to "abide in Him."

If you scratch below the surface, there's a little Pelagius in all of us. We all believe at some level that we can please God. But Scripture insists we can't. And even when we know better, we find ourselves having once more having looked for good in ourselves.

What we need is the life of Jesus manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:11). There is a cost to that: "death works in us" (2 Corinthians 4:9 – 12). God's not interested in my life and Christ's life: He's interested in Christ's life instead of mine.

There are some practical concerns coming out of this: we'll save those for another post.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

I found this today and thought it worth sharing after some of the recent comment threads:

The love of Christ to saints is explained by this, they are individually dear to Christ because they are the Father's gift to Him, and He makes known to them the Father's name.
("Jesus Glorified and the Spirit Given", New Ministry by F. E. Raven, Volume 1, p. 12)