Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 3

Two things stand out from reading chapter 3 of R.C. Sproul's The Holiness of God this week. The first was the helpful reminder that the holiness of God is not simply one among many of His is the defining characteristic of who He is. Sproul writes, "The tendency is to add the idea of holy to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many. But when the word 'holy' is applied to God, it does not signify one attribute among many. On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for His deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is" (pp. 39-40).

Some theologians divide God's attributes into two categories - communicable and incommunicable. Those that are incommunicable belong only to God (e.g. - God is eternal, God is unchangeable, etc.). The ones that are communicable are those that He can choose to share with creatures. So, human beings can be described as faithful, gracious, or just (just to name a few).

While we might exhibit some form of these attributes, we never display them in the same way as God. God's justice is holy justice, where humans may accept a bribe or pervert justice for other reasons. God's faithfulness is holy faithfulness, while we our faithfulness is often fickle and based on our feelings at any given moment. What separates God from human beings in these communicable attributes is that He is holy...He is altogether separate, He is far above and beyond us in grace, faithfulness, wisdom, justice, etc. As Sproul would say, He is "a cut above."

The second thing that stuck is closely related to this first one. One can easily feel puffed up in displaying God's attributes through his life. I might feel like a better human being when I am just. I may feel myself 'a cut above' when I display wisdom in one situation or another. Yet, it is crucial to maintain a firm grip on the holiness of God if I am to avoid slipping into pride. How quickly I would forget that He is God, and I am quick I am to believe the lie that when I am ___________, I "will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5b). Even in seeking to be an imitator of God (Eph. 5:1), I must beware of the slippery slope of pride and self-idolatry and remember that any holiness...and separateness...displayed in my life is a result of the gracious work of a holy God. Only "His touch on the common makes the common suddenly uncommon" (p. 40).

Sproul reminds me that "when we are aware of the presence of God, we become most aware of ourselves as creatures" (p. 44). His holiness should strike a chord of sobriety in my soul. Even when God is described as greatly immanent, we can never forget that He is greatly transcendent. Even when we sense His closeness, we cannot forget just how far we are from His holy perfection. Of course, we must be holy because He is holy, but we must always remember that the only reason we can be holy is because He is holy. The holy One has touched the unholy ones and made us holy....we have a derived holines...He is inherently holy!

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Importance of Intellect

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "The Insufficiency of Intellect". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 12:28-34, we see a scribe coming to Jesus to have his question answered. Discussions about weightier and lighter matters of the law was familiar among teachers of the law. My guess is that if you were a fly on the wall of a first-century coffee shop, you would hear some of these ongoing discussions, sorting through the 613 individual commands and their importance. Jesus' skill in answering difficult questions prompted the scribe's inquiry: Which commandment is the most important of all?

When we get to the end of the story, we find that the scribe's intellectual curiosity was satisfied but his soul was still in need. Jesus said he was "not far from the kingdom of God" (v. 34b), which means he was not in it. Intellectual division and systematization of God's Word, dissecting it to discover the meaning of every jot and tittle, and settling the big questions of theology are insufficient to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. It is only through heeding Jesus' words, 'repent and believe in the gospel' (Mark 1:15), that one will find himself in the kingdom of God rather than near it.

Now, while I believe this is the thrust of the passage, we must take a few minutes to make sure we do not think improperly about the place of intellect. It is true that intellect is insufficient as a means of salvation...mere mental assent to the facts of the gospel does not change a man's heart. It is also true that intellect is insufficient as a means of sanctification...godliness is not measured by the amount of theological material ingested. If that were the case, Ph.D.'s in theology would automatically be the godliest men of all.

With that said, we cannot discount intellect...we cannot dismiss the role of the mind in the life of the Christian. The Scripture does not dismiss it, and we see that in Mark 12, as we are to love God "with all [our] mind" (v. 30). While there are many passages that would help us think about this truth, I want to guide us to two.

First, let's look at Romans 12. Verse 2 reads, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." This is the beginning of a large section the practical application of the gospel to daily living (12:3-15:7). Where does daily living for God begin? What is it that will help us to test and live by the will of God? The life of the Christian cannot be properly lived with the constant transformation and renewal of the mind...a process that happens by constant exposure and submission to the Word of God.

If we do not intellectually engage with the text of Scripture, then we will not ultimately find its meaning. We may have feelings about what a passage says, but we will not understand it as God intends. If we fail to understand the Scripture, then our minds will not be renewed, and we will find ourselves more conformed to the world than transformed by the Word. So, we study the Scripture...we work hard to get to the meaning of the text...we pray for the Spirit to teach us and change our minds. The Christian life is not to be governed by our intuition or our ever-changing feelings. Rather, it is to be ruled by God and His Word applied by the Spirit. For this to happen, we cannot 'check our brains' at the door of Bible study.

Paul goes on from this verse to talk about the kind of life produced by a renewed, transformed mind...a mind intellectually engaged with and spiritually changed by the Word of God. This one will be humble and energetically use his gifts to serve others in the body (12:3-8). His relationships with both friends and enemies of the gospel will be changed (12:9-21). His life within society will be distinct and godly (13:1-7). Godliness and obedience to the law will mark his life (13:8-14). Rather than flaunting his spirituality with those who differ from him, he will tolerate differences in secondary matters (14:1-23). Overall, his life will not be self-oriented, but he will aim to please and serve others (15:1-7).

Where does all that start? It starts in the mind...a mind renewed and transformed by the gospel, first of all. However, it is also a mind renewed and transformed daily by the Word of God. The only way God's Word is properly taken in is through some kind of intellectual engagement. All of us are not intellectuals, but each of us must use his/her intellect to passionately pursue understanding of God's Word so that we might seek to apply that knowledge to our lives in the power of the Spirit.

The second passage to which I will point will probably be familiar to you, as well. It is Philippians 4:6-9. Often, we break this passage into two parts, but Paul didn't write it that way. One part flows from the other as the author seeks to instruct the Philippians. The first portion is one that we often quote to ourselves (or others) in the midst of difficult situations: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (v. 6-7). Here, we rightfully find instruction to take all our cares to God, knowing He cares for us and will provide us with peace in the midst of our storms.

The second part of this passage deals with the focus of the mind. Our minds should be on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, etc. The end result of doing this, Paul says, is that "the peace of God will be with you" (v. 9). While this is a good instruction on its own, I think it's best to see this as a continuation of the first part of the passage. Why? Because "the peace of God" connects both sections. If we seek God in prayer when feeling anxious, we will find the peace of God with us guarding our hearts and minds. If we will focus our minds where God says to, the peace of God will be with us.

Here, we see that the role of the mind is crucial. It is our mind that thinks on the problems that we may face (and sometimes problems we will never face). It is our mind that speculates how things could go terribly wrong, though nothing may have yet gone wrong. It is our mind that often produces hypothetical situations that lead to disaster. It is our mind that takes us to the worst possible scenario. It is this kind of thinking that leads us to anxiety, and Scripture tells us to take that anxiety to God in prayer.

If we stop there, we will quickly be anxious again. As you and I well know, our minds do not stay empty for very long. To paraphrase something R.C. Sproul wrote, when you try to think about 'nothing' you inevitably end up thinking about something. So, how do we avoid that anxiety? How do we keep from stumbling back into unbelief and worry? This is where the intellect comes in yet again.

Paul points us to those things on which our minds should focus. Rather than let our minds go where it wants, we should be training our minds to focus on those things that are true, just, lovely, commendable, etc. If we have not intellectually engaged in studying the Scripture, then "what is true" may change from one day to the next, rather than resting on the revelation of God. If our minds have not been immersed in the Bible, then "what is lovely" will be more determined by our fleeting emotion rather than God's assessment. The battle over anxiety is a battle for the mind, and if we are to win this battle for the mind, we must train our mind through disciplined study of the Scripture...and that takes intellect.

More passages could be examined, but time prohibits. To reiterate the point, intellect alone is insufficient for salvation and sanctification, but intellect is not unimportant. If we are to properly obey God's Word, then we must properly understand God's Word. If we are to properly understand God's Word, then we must use the intellect God has given us to pursue that truth, depending on the Spirit for illumination all along the way.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 2

I read chapter 2 from R.C. Sproul's The Holiness of God this week, and it was pretty amazing. It focused on Isaiah's vision and calling in Isaiah 6, and though I have been gripped in the past by reading the text and hearing sermons on it, I was gripped once again as I read this chapter. To begin on a light note, it was good to see that I have something in common with R.C. Sproul. I, too, make sure that I capitalize references to God in my own writing, and I do it out of respect for His name and character. When I quote a passage of Scripture, I typically leave the pronoun the way it appears in the text, but when the idea is mine, I capitalize...always have.

There are three things that really hit me as I read...the effect of God's holiness on the angels, the effect of God's holiness on the temple, and the effect of God's holiness on His servant. (Why would you expect anything other than 3 points from a pastor?)

First, Sproul pointed out the actions of the angels in the presence of a holy God. They covered their face, and they covered their feet...much like Moses was not able to look at the face of God and had to remove his shoes in the presence of God. What is striking to me (and what Sproul points out) is that these angels are not fallen in sin! They live in the presence of God as His holy angels. Yet, their holiness does not originate with themselves...they were created this way by a holy God. God alone is independently holy, and the angels' holiness is dependent on their Creator making them that way. The covering of their faces and feet point to a clear, unmistakable distinction between God and His angels.

Second, I love these sentences about the shaking of the temple in the presence of God. "We note here, when God entered the temple, the doors and the thresholds were moved. The inert matter of doorposts, the inanimate thresholds, the wood and metal that could neither hear nor speak had the good sense to be moved in the presence of God" (v. 26). Truly, as the temple shook, it was declaring the glory of God along with the heavens (Ps. 19:1).

Third, Isaiah shook. I have taken note of this repeatedly in the past, but what Sproul pointed out was something I think I have overlooked in previous examinations of the text. Isaiah was considered a righteous man. Here's what he writes: "If ever there was a man of integrity, it was Isaiah ben Amoz. He was a whole man, a together type of fellow. He was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a holy God. In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself with other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed - morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed" (p. 29).

It is in these types of things that stir the reminder in my soul of just how holy our God is. It is thinking on these things that hallows the name of God in my heart. I join the angels, the temple, and Isaiah in shaken awe of our holy God, and as I continue in the book, I look forward to more time meditating on this great perfection of Yahweh, my Adonai.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What is Going on Here? The Story of Moses, You and Me

[This entry follows a sermon preached by John Tierney at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Why Do Bad Things Happen...?"]

Today's blog has been written by John Tierney, who preached in my place during yesterday's service. John writes:

On an otherwise non-descript day, Moses saw a bush that was burning, but wasn’t burning. In the ensuing encounter with God, he learned that he would be going before the Pharaoh of Egypt, in order to procure the freedom of God’s people, the Israelites. “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go, except under compulsion” (Ex. 3:19), said the Lord. So Moses loaded up the family and headed back to Egypt. Along the way, God again spoke to Moses, reminding him that Pharaoh would not acquiesce to his demand: “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex. 4:21)

In time, Moses did come before Pharaoh. Along with his brother, Aaron, Moses told Pharaoh what God had said. At God’s direction, Moses requested a three-day reprieve, so the Israelites could go into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord. And wouldn’t you know it? God was right. Pharaoh was indignant at the request, and accused the Israelites of being lazy.

Perhaps also sensing the dangerous notion of freedom beginning to make its way through the Israelite camp, Pharaoh responded, not only by denying the request, but by increasing the workload of the Hebrew slaves. Whereas before, the Egyptians supplied the straw necessary for making bricks, now the Israelites were forced to gather it themselves. And, “let the labor be heavier on the men”, Pharaoh said, “let them work at it so that they will pay no attention to false words” (Ex. 5:9). And so, the Egyptians turned up the heat on the Israelites, and the plan worked to perfection.

The Israelite foremen, whom Pharaoh had ordered to be beaten if the quota of bricks diminished, accosted Moses and Aaron: “May the Lord look upon you and judge you”, they said, “for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hands to kill us” (Ex. 5:21). Shaken by this dreadful turn of events, Moses returned to God. “O Lord”, he cried. “Why have you brought harm to this people? Why did you ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Ex. 5:23-24).

Poor Moses. All he did was obey God, and as a result he lost any chance whatsoever at the “Emancipator of the Year” Award. So Moses cried out to God and asked, “Why? Why have you brought harm to this people, and by the way, why did you send me to do it?” But if the truth be told, you could make the case that Moses’ cry was, “Why me? Why me?!?”

Now, somewhere in the back of his mind, Moses probably knew. After all, God had told him what would happen, and it was coming to pass right before his eyes. What God didn’t do was give Moses all the details. He gave him some, but definitely not all. He gave him a mission, and he told him how it would end, but He didn’t give him step-by-step snapshots of each day’s excitement. Still, unless Moses had completely forgotten the details of his one-on-one conversations with the Omnipotent Creator of the universe, he probably knew.

If you think about it, Moses’ personal journey into, and out of, Egypt isn’t all that different from the life of the New Testament believer. We read God’s Word, we accept its truth, and we launch our ship of faith. But quite often when the storms come, we’re shocked. “Hey, what’s going on here!?” we scream. “Well, I told you this wouldn’t be easy,” says the Lord’s Word. “Yeah, but come on,” replies the heart, “this is HARD!” We READ that in this life “you WILL have trouble”, but we tend to SEE, “you MAY have trouble”. That sort of hoping against hope (and hoping against reality) only sets us up for unnecessary shockers along the way.

But praised be our God; He is patient, He is kind, and He is longsuffering. And – He loves us. And so when Moses or Gideon or the Psalmist or you or I ask, “Why does it have to be this way?” God doesn’t respond harshly. (As He could!) Instead, He teaches us, grows us, points us to His Word, carries us, and loves us. Again, praised be our God!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Holiness of God, Chapter 1

For the next several weeks, I will be reading The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul, one chapter a week. I am doing so as part of Tim Challies' group: Reading Classics Together. If you're interested in joining us on the journey, just go to This Thursday blog will be my comments and reflections following each chapter.

Chapter 1 of this modern classic begins with a biographical sketch from Sproul's time in college. When I first started listening to Sproul teach on the radio, I felt like I had to keep a dictionary beside me at all times. He is a brilliant theologian and a gifted teacher, and what I loved about the way this chapter opened was that it gave insight into his personal life.

What was particularly striking about this first chapter was Sproul's description of God's act of creation. It was mind-stretching to, once again, try to wrap my mind around the idea of God creating everything 'out of nothing'. He writes: "Before the world began, there was nothing. But what in the world is 'nothing'? Have you ever tried to think about nothing? Where can we find it? Obviously nowhere. Why? Because it is nothing, and nothing doesn't exist. It can't exist, because if it did, then it would be something and not nothing. Are you starting to get a headache like mine?" (p. 7)

Then, God speaks, and everything changes. Here's part of Sproul's imaginative description of creation that was particularly gripping to me:

"The first sound uttered in the universe was the voice of God commanding, "Let there be!" It is improper to say that this was the first sound 'in' the universe because until the sound was made there was no universe for it to be in. God shouted into a void. Perhaps it was a kind of primal scream directed at the empty darkness.

"The command created its own molecules to carry the sound waves of God's voice farther and farther into space. Yet sound waves would take too long. The speed of this imperative exceeded the speed of light. As soon as the words left the Creator's mouth, things began to happen. Where His voice reverberated , stars appeared, glowing in unspeakable brilliance in tempo with the songs of angels. The force of divine energy splattered against the sky like a kaleidoscope of color hurled from the pallet of a powerful artist. Comets crisscrossed the sky with flashing tails like Fourth of July skyrockets."

The God who did all of this is holy. He is worthy of worship and reverence. He demands that we be holy because He is holy, and if we are not, there are real, severe consequences. My prayer is that, as I read along with everyone participating, God will hallow His name (Mt. 6:9) in my heart and cause me to freshly stand in awe of Him as the holy God.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Don't Repeat the Tragedy of the Sadducee

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church: "Jesus Answers a Theological Riddle". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In Mark 12:18-27, the Sadducees approach Jesus with something of a theological riddle...a question that is meant to stump Him and discredit Him as a teacher. Thinking about the question as a riddle throws my mind to old Batman episodes in which the Riddler poses some difficult enigma with regard to his evil plan. I would try to solve it myself, but just as my brain was getting in gear, Batman would beat me (and Robin) to the punch. (There's a quick glimpse into my mind...filled with rabbit trails!)

In this passage, Jesus is not merely interested to display His intellect by answering the Sadducees' question...He is interested in exposing the Sadducees' condition. They are wrong...they are quite wrong (v. 24, 27). I find myself dwelling on one of the reasons they were wrong...they do not know the Scripture (v. 24). They had a deep conviction about the absence of any life after this one, and they were ready to go to war over it. Yet, their theology had spun off in a wrong direction because they had wrongly understood the Scriptures they claimed to know and treasure.

We need to avoid this tragedy. We need to avoid sharing this error with the Sadducees. We do not want to be those of whom it could be said, "Is this not why you are wrong...because you do not know the Scripture?" Our desire is not to simply be right for the sake of being is to be right about the Bible so that our lives are right. Bruce Milne put it this way: "...getting doctrine right is the key to getting everything else right. If we are to know who God is, who we are, and what God wants of us, we need to study the Scripture. That means its teaching as a whole, and that means doctrine" (Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, p. 14).

So, the goal isn't to grow fat heads full of sound doctrine...the end of which can often be theological pride. The goal is to get our doctrine right through the study of Scripture so that our lives might be right as Scripture studies us. But how can we stay on course? How can we avoid the pitfall of doctrinal pride? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Take in the Word regularly. There will be no right doctrine apart from the steady intake of God's Word. Whatever the amount one reads, it must be truly taken in. As I was growing up, the offering envelopes in my church came with a checklist of weekly tasks. There were things like: "Brought Bible to church", "Made contacts", "Read Bible daily", etc. The Sunday school teacher would sometimes run through these after we turned in our offering, asking each one. I tell you that to say this...taking in the Word regularly should not be done in order to check off one of our spiritual duties. This can actually contribute to pride rather than fight against it. Rather, we must take in the Word with the goal of growth.

To do this, maybe we need to reduce the amount we are reading and spend more time meditating (i.e.- thinking deeply) on what we read. You could choose a book of the Bible, ask your pastor to recommend a commentary for that book, and spend the next year reading a portion of the Bible with the corresponding part of the commentary each day. The point is...we will not know the Scripture if we do not take in the Scripture.

2. Take in the Word prayerfully. Taking in the Word is not merely an academic exercise. When we come to the Bible, we must come as those who need its teaching. We must come confessing our need. We must come knowing that unless God teaches us its truth, we will remain doctrinally clueless. One way to intentionally acknowledge this is to begin our daily Bible reading with prayer.

Here's one example of this kind of prayer: "O God of truth, I thank thee for the holy Scriptures, their precepts, promises, directions, light. In them may I learn more of Christ, be enabled to retain his truth and have grace to follow it. Help me to lift up the gates of my soul that he may come in and show me himself when I search the Scriptures, for I have no lines to fathom its depths, no wings to soar to its heights. By his aid may I be enabled to explore all its truths, love them with all my heart, embrace them with all my power, engraft them into my life. Bless to my soul all grains of truth garnered from thy Word; may they take deep root, be refreshed by heavenly dew, be ripened by heavenly rays, be harvested to my joy and thy praise.

"Help me to gain profit by what I read, as treasure beyond all treasure, a fountain which can replenish my dry heart, its waters flowing through me as a perennial river on-drawn by thy Holy Spirit. Enable me to distill from its pages faithful prayer that grasps the arm of thy omnipotence, achieves wonders, obtains blessings, and draws from streams of mercy. From it show me how thy words have often been unfaithful to thee, injurious to my fellow-men, empty of grace, full of folly, dishonouring to my calling. Then write thy own words upon my heart and inscribe them on my lips; so shall all glory be to thee in my reading of thy Word" (The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, p. 190).

3. Take in the Word in community. What I mean is that the taking in of the Bible is not only a solitary is meant to be done within the realm of the local church. God has given the church teachers to equip the body by expounding God's Word (Eph. 4:11-14). He has not given them only for those who are young in their faith...He has given them for ALL who are in the faith. We all need to take in the Word in community. Believing that one does not need to sit under teaching or preaching is an expression of the pride of independence. It is the ear saying to the mouth, "I don't need you," which those in the body of Christ must never do (1 Cor. 12:12-26).

Valuing this time as a benefit to our souls will mean making every effort to sit under the teaching of the Bible. If there are small group classes at your church, get involved in those opportunities! You may have to stop wandering hallways and drinking coffee during Sunday school, but when we see studying the Bible in community with others as spiritually beneficial, this is an easy decision to make. For some of us, we've been in these small groups all our lives because it's just what we've done. We may just need to readjust our perspective a bit...knowing that part of our knowing the Scripture and avoiding the tragedy of the Sadducee is taking in the Word in community.

4. Approach theological conflict with humility. This is obviously absent from the Sadducees' interaction with Jesus, and it is all too often absent in our interactions with one another. As long as our minds are affected by the presence of sin (and they are), there will be genuine differences between godly, Bible-believing, gospel-loving Christians. Even when I have a deep, firm conviction that my doctrine is sound and biblical, approaching others with "guns blazing" is not appropriate. Timothy was dealing with false doctrine in the church at Ephesus, and read Paul's counsel to him: "And the Lord's servant [i.e.- you, Timothy] must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Tim. 2:24-25a).

This is not an approach which gives up doctrine for the sake of peace with another person. It is an approach that is passionate and yet patient. It is not filled with sarcasm but with gentleness. John Newton spoke about this with regard to the way some who believed in the doctrines of grace (i.e.- Calvinism) approached those who didn't. He writes, "Professors who own the doctrines of free grace often act inconsistently with their own principles when they are angry at the defects of others. A company of travelers fall into a pit, and one of them gets a passenger to draw him out. Now he should not be angry with the rest for falling in nor because they are not yet out as he is. He did not pull himself out. Therefore, instead of reproaching them, he should show them pity. He should avoid, at any rate, going down upon their ground again and show how much better and happier he is upon his own...A man truly illuminated will no more despise others than Bartimaeus, after his own eyes were opened would take a stick and beat every blind man he met" (Out of the Depths, p. 155).

5. Remain teachable. There will never come a day when we cease needing to take in the Word regularly, prayerfully, and in community. The Sadducees' believed that their educational background and present power excused them from the need to learn...especially from a Nazarene rabbi! The truth this life, we will not reach a day when we should stop striving to learn from the Scripture. In this sense, we never "arrive". It is only once God rescues us from this world that we will know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12). Until that time, we must remain teachable.

Humble, consistent submission to God's Word will help us to avoid the tragedy of the Sadducees. May each of us avoid the pitfall of the oxymoronic state of spiritual pride!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

I Have to Submit to Them?

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Jesus Escapes a Political Trap". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

As we read Jesus' interaction with the Pharisees and Herodians in Mark 12, we hear the Lord say, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (v. 17). In the political climate of Jesus' day, there was an understandable antagonism toward the Romans and their government. However, Jesus indicates that Caesar has a legitimate realm of authority in this world. It is, in fact, an authority that has been ordained by God, and because it is ordained by God, resisting Caesar would be the equivalent of resisting God (Romans 13:1-2). So, while the antagonism was understandable, it was not acceptable.

Submission may be an unpopular word in today's culture, but it is a word that marks how God has ordained human culture to function. Families that will please God must function by submission. A child must submit to His parents' authority because God has ordained that child to belong to a particular family. The Scripture says that wives are to submit to their own husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22) because God has ordained that the husband be head of the wife (1 Cor. 11:3). Husbands are submitting humans as well. In their family, they must submit to the Lord Jesus, who is the head of every man (1 Cor. 11:3).

Generally speaking, there is plenty of submission to go around. In work, we must submit to our bosses. In churches, we must submit to the elders. Even those who are elders must submit...they must submit to one another in accountability. In society, we must submit to the government. Submission has been ordained by God to keep things the family, in the church, and in society. None of us escapes the need to submit, and none of us should want to escape the need to submit. If we desired to escape all be completely independent of all human authority...then we would be longing to escape from God's ordained means of living. We would be rebelling against Him.

So, how does one get along if submitting is difficult? What happens if you are in a society in which the government is making bad decisions for its citizens with regard to critical issues? What if you are a believing wife married to an unbelieving husband...and he is not leading in godliness? What if your boss is a jerk and makes work difficult for you? What if you are a believing teenagers whose unbelieving parents restrict your activity at church? What if the elders at your church are deciding to add a staff member and you're not convinced such a position is needed? What are we to do when we feel that the authorities are making wrong decisions?

Well, I won't address every one of these. I will simply give some general things to remember when submission "rubs us the wrong way."

1. Remember that all of these submission relationships have been ordained by God. God's providential rule over all things includes the societies in which we live and the familes into which we are born. When a Christian woman believes she made "the wrong choice" when she married an unbeliever, even this was not outside God's providential care. Two unbelievers get married, and one is converted while the other remains lost...this is not outside God's providential care. An ungodly man or woman is elected to an important position of leadership in government and proceeds to make atrocious decisions...this is not outside God's providential care. And the list could go on. Remembering God's sovereignty over all things should remind us that when things seem out of control, we can trust the One who never loses control.

2. Remember that submitting to humans is just that...submitting to humans. That seems pretty obvious, but when we remember that humans are "prone to wander," we recognize that there will be times when the best possible decision may not be made...when errors in judgment or direction will occur. We will never be free of this, but as believers, when we are the husbands or parents or politicians or pastors who wander from wisdom for one reason or another, we must be quick to repent and seek forgiveness. And...when we resolve only to complain about those who are in authority, we may be forgetting our own tendency toward corruption while we live in these bodies.

Thinking of this in relationship to government, I can't help but recall the words of C.S. Lewis. "I am a [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man...A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved in a share in the government...The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked powers over his fellows." We are given a privilege not held by all nations...the privilege of being part of electing and removing people from power. Still, even those we support the most fully are likely to disappoint us.

3. Remember the teaching of the Scripture about difficulties and trials. The difficulties and trials of life are God's designed means of building things like character, hope, and perseverence into the lives of His children (Romans 5:1-5; James 1:2-4). We all experience things like and relationships and difficulties that are meant to refine and build our faith. In fact, we cannot be made like Jesus apart from them. He was a Man of Sorrows...He was acquainted with grief...He experienced the depths of difficulty, rejection, temptation, and trial, and He endured faithfully. If we are to "follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21b), then we must walk these roads as well.

Now, think about the Christian wife whose husband is lost. It is absolutely true that the wife of a believing husband may have a relatively easier time submitting than the wife of an unbelieving husband. However, God's providential plan in making this Christian woman like Jesus includes the struggles of having an unbelieving husband. It will most likely drive that woman to prayer, to the Scripture, and deeper abiding trust in God as Father and Christ as Husband. It is through this kind of submission that God delights to save unbelieving husbands (1 Peter 3:1). Even if he never believes, her struggle to submit ultimately makes her like Jesus and honors God.

4. Remember that no submission to human authority is absolute. This is something that we must remember. No wife's submission to her husband is absolute. No Christian's submission to government is absolute. No employee's submission to his/her employer is absolute. The only submission that is absolute is submission to God and His Word.

A Christian is not obligated to submit to those things which are clearly sinful and violate God's Word. When Caesar's commands contradict God's commands, God's will must rule in the life of a Christian. There are countries in which it is illegal to practice Christianity, yet this does not mean that Christians in these societies should reject their faith...nor does it mean that missionaries must cease doing their work in dangerous places. For as Peter and the apostles answered the demand to stop preaching the gospel, "We must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29).

This is not a line to be used when we don't like what authorities is a call for allegiance to God when the kingdom of Caesar collides with the kingdom of God. The same could be said of a Christian whose husband, parent, or employer would demand sinful actions be taken. Absolute authority belongs only to God...not to men.

5. Remember that you may have an opportunity to use your voice to change a hard situation. A wife may approach her husband with concern over something happening in the family. As citizens of the US, we have the opportunity to express our desire for change through voting. There are typically systems within companies that give employees opportunity to improve or correct procedures or policies when needed.

In these things, there is a great danger to be proud and walk into a conversation feeling like you hold all the cards...ready to throw down a nice "I told you so" before it's all over. This does reflect much of the political talk radio of our day. Too often, it does reflect the way that husbands and wives speak to one another. It does reflect the way a child will speak to his parents. And it does reflect how an employee may "go off" on his/her employer. However, it most certainly does not reflect a heart that wants to be submissive. When we have an opportunity to voice a need for change, we must even do this submissively.

6. Remember that as you struggle with those over you in authority, there is One who will hear your plea. "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18). God is not distant as you and I struggle with anything, including submission to those in authority. He is the One who put the authorities in their place, and He can remove them. This is not the case for husbands and parents, but it is certainly the case of bosses and governing officials. It is not a bad thing to call on the Lord for relief...we see David doing it throughout the psalms. It is also only by His Spirit that you will persevere in the humility necessary to submit to authority, so call on Him for help. Cast your anxieties on Him because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)!

7. Remember that the goal of submission is to honor God...not to get what you want. This is where humility comes in. Submission is easy when the ones you are submitting to always choose what you think is best. We Americans, in particular, feel that we should make a fight out of everything with which we disagree. The goal of submission is to honor God as the One who has placed us in these submission relationships. His authority is honored when human authority is honored.

Let me leave you with some artillery for the battle of submission. It reminds us of the attitude in which we should approach all things...including submission. It is in Philippians 2:14-15: "Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world..."