Tag Archives: discipleship

Icon of St. Augustine of Hippo

Healing the Wounds of Sin

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,

Ps 103:1–3 [ESV]

I’ve had the opportunity this semester to read several of Jonathan Edwards’ works. One of the things that has stood out to me regarding his theology is an emphasis on the sinfulness of humanity and the punishment we deserve as a result of it. While I by no means disagree with this, I do feel that is unbalanced; Sin is not just an act we commit that deserves punishment, it is also a disease inherent to human nature that must cured. This imbalance, in my opinion, seems to have continued in much of American theology to the present day.

Commenting on Psalm 103.3 Augustine says,

Icon of St. Augustine of HippoBehold His rewards. What, save punishment, was due unto the sinner? What was due to the blasphemer, but the hell of burning fire? He gave not these rewards: that thou mayest not shudder with dread: and without love fear Him.… But thou art a sinner. Turn again, and receive these His rewards: He “forgiveth all thy sin.” … Yet even after remission of sins the soul herself is shaken by certain passions; still is she amid the dangers of temptation, still is she pleased with certain suggestions; with some she is not pleased, and sometimes she consenteth unto some of those with which she is pleased: she is taken. This is infirmity: but He “healeth all thine infirmities.” All thine infirmities shall be healed: fear not. They are great, thou wilt say: but the Physician is greater. No infirmity cometh before the Almighty Physician as incurable: only suffer thou thyself to be healed: repel not His hands; He knoweth how to deal with thee. Be not only pleased when He cherisheth thee, but also bear with Him when He useth the knife: bear the pain of the remedy, reflecting on thy future health.… Thou dost not endure in uncertainty: He who promised thee health, cannot be deceived. The physician is often deceived: and promiseth health in the human body. Why is he deceived? Because he is not healing his own creature. God made thy body, God made thy soul. He knoweth how to restore what He hath made, He knoweth how to fashion again what He hath already fashioned: do thou only be patient beneath the Physician’s hands: for He hateth one who rejects His hands.

— Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.8, Ps 103.4

I believe that humanity lives in 1 of 2 states: either they are in Christ and have remission [released from the penalty] of sin or they are not in Christ [i.e. they are in Sin] and do not have remission of sin. No one is naturally in Christ, and so they must be redeemed from Sin by Christ after which they are then in Christ [Rom 3.24]. Once in Christ they are no longer subject to the punishment their sin deserves, but their soul is still just as wounded, sick, and evil as it was before. Or as Augustine put it above it is still, “shaken by certain passions; still is she amid the dangers of temptation…” Or to put it still another way, the only change that has taken place is a legal one, the moral character of the person is still the same as it was before.

It is the healing part that comes from being in Christ, which is the most difficult part of the Christian life, that I believe is not emphasized enough these days. While there are certainly times in this process where “He cherisheth” us, there are also times where we have to “bear with Him when He useth the knife” and also “bear the pain of the remedy.” Unlike the legal change described above, which takes place in an instant, this healing process takes place over the course of our entire lives and is never finished during them.

I believe that by failing to properly recognize the healing that comes from being in Christ our faith becomes primarily about deliverance from eternal damnation, which is not the goal of our faith. Our faith is primarily concerned about becoming like Christ, or as Athanasius would say, “He [God] became man that we might be made God.” God did not redeem us from Sin simply to save us from eternal damnation; He redeemed us from Sin to make us like Christ, to make us like God. It is in the pursuit of Christ-likeness that we are healed from the wounds that Sin has inflicted upon us.

Why Squirrels are Better

 

How to be happy: be a dog!

This just in from the stating the obvious department…

While I was still living in FL God provided me with a frequent image to consider: squirrels (don’t laugh! this is going somewhere serious I promise!). You see there is a tree in the backyard of my parent’s house that I would watch the squirrels play in every morning before I did my daily Scripture readings. I would often be jealous of them. They didn’t worry about their jobs, money, or many of the other things that I worried about. They simply ran around the tree chasing each other, gathered material for nests, and (after checking to make sure the dog was inside) hopped down to the ground to search for food. Their lives seemed so simple, happy and worry-free; I wondered why my life had to be so complex, sad, and worrisome.

I’m not sure that I truly learned the lesson God was teaching me back then (actually I’m not sure I’ve truly learned any lesson God has ever taught me), but it’s a lesson I am being taught again as I near the end of another semester of seminary. I even find myself worrying about the same things I did back then! What will I do after seminary? Am I currently pursuing the right path for after graduation? Will I have enough money? Actually I am even worrying about more things! Am I being called to marriage or singleness? Can I personally do ministry without the support of a wife? Will having a wife (and likely kids also) be a detriment to my ministry?

Squirrels have not been my only teachers regarding these concerns, but Scripture also. The Psalms address these concerns in numerous places I believe, but Psalm 95.1-7 has stood out to me in particular:

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Psalm 95.1-7a ESV

These verses recount God’s creation of the world and everything in it, including humans. As a result of this we, along with the rest of creation, should recognize that we not only exist due solely to God’s decision to create, but that we are dependent on Him for our daily sustenance (e.g. food, water).

Jesus explicitly teaches this several times in the New Testament. First in Matthew 6.25-34:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Matthew 6.25-34 ESV

It doesn’t matter how much money we have or how big our house is, if God doesn’t send the rain to water the crops and fill the rivers and lakes, or the sunshine to grow the crops we won’t be alive for much longer. No matter how fit or healthy we are we will not live a moment longer than God has decided that we should live. So what should we do? God knows that we need food, water, and clothing, and He will give these things to us, just like he does to the birds (and squirrels!). And just like the birds (and squirrels!) are obedient to God and serve Him the way He intends for them, so we also should follow God and be obedient to His teachings and live the life he intends for us, a life of holiness. We should not be anxious about food, water, and clothing.

Jesus again teaches us not be anxious when He is in Martha’s house:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Luke 10.38-42 ESV

Martha is busy with all the preparations* for Jesus and His disciples, but how does Jesus describe her? As anxious about many things! A rebuke! It is Mary who Jesus describes as having “chosen the good portion,” which is listening to the words of her God and Savior and following Him, rather than being worried about food and entertaining guests.

Even the Apostles struggled with being anxious! They were once worried that they had no food, even though they had already seen Jesus feed thousands of people with just a few fish and a few loaves of bread:

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16.5-12 ESV

But why is it significant that we not worry about these things? Because they are symptomatic of what is in our heart. The passage I quoted above from Matthew 6.25-34 has a parallel account in Luke 12.22-31 and immediately following adds:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Luke 12.32-34 ESV

I believe one of the fundamentals of the Christian life is to learn to set our hearts and desires on heavenly rewards rather than earthly rewards. This means learning to hear God’s voice and being obedient to what He calls you to do and trusting that He will provide for your needs along the way. The second part of Psalm 95 is instructive regarding this:

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
Psalm 95.7b-11**

God has called us to follow Him and to trust Him to provide for our needs along the way. We should not be worried about whether we will have food, or water, or clothing, or whether we will be married because God knows what we need and will give us what we need. What we should be worried about is whether or not we are being obedient to Him, following Him where He is leading us, and trusting Him to provide for us. If we are not doing this it is a sign that we love the things of the world, such as money or power or prestige, more than the God who made us. It is a sign that Sin is ruling our lives.

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

 

*The word translated “serving” probably refers to the preparations for a social event, such as a meal. See BDAG, διακονία 2.b.

**The incident at Meribah and Massah is found in Exodus 17.1-7 where the Israelites grumbled against Moses and did not trust that God was with them and would provide for their needs on their journey to the land He had promised, even though they had already seen Him provide bread for them from heaven (Exodus 16). Also, Hebrew 3.7-4.13 has an excellent exposition of these verses which I highly recommend reading.

 

Christianity is Not a Contract!

Diablo 3 - Tyrael

Tyrael of Diablo fame.

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” — C.S. Lewis

A fairly common question I see asked regarding Christianity is, “Is it okay to do _________?” I recently saw such a question posed again and I thought to myself, “Why is this question even being asked? What theological framework allows for such a question to even be asked in the first place?” As I thought about the answer to these questions I realized that to ask if a certain behavior is “okay” is to approach Christianity with the assumption that it is a contract entered into between a person and God, an assumption I believe is invalid.

In a contract two parties agree to fulfill certain responsibilities and it remains in effect as long as the terms of the contract are not breached. Such an approach sets up the expectation that as long as we do not breach the “contract” God will still fulfill His side of the deal and give us a place in heaven. And since we are by nature sinful and evil beings we then try to seek out what the bounds of this contract are; we ask ourselves, “How far can I go? What sort of loopholes can I find that will allow me to do what I want and fulfill my desires without breaching this contract?” It is this mindset I believe that leads to the question, “Is it okay for a Christian to do _________?”

Such a mindset is, I believe, taught nowhere in Scripture. We are taught that we were created by God, in His image, and were commanded to multiply and fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1.26-28). In order to sustain us He gave us the plants and the trees and their fruits (Gen. 1.29) and of the trees the only prohibition was from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and if we did so we would die (Gen. 2.17). So we see that one tree leads to death, while all the others (including the tree of life [Gen. 3.22]) lead to life. Thus we had two ways set before us, one of life and another of death, and we had to walk in one or the other, there were no alternatives. For if we ate of the trees that were allowed, we would live and fill the earth and subdue it; and if we ate of the tree of which eating was prohibited, we would die; and if we had tried to be “neutral” and not eaten of any of the trees we also would have died as we require sustenance by our nature.

Even though we chose the way leading to death, the way to life was not thereby made unavailable to us, for we were prevented from eating from the tree of life, which would have resulted in us living forever in our fallen state (Gen. 3.22). Thus God cast us out of the Garden in order to work the ground from which we were taken (Gen. 3.23-24) in order that we might learn that the way of life was now through repentance and trust (Isa. 30.15).

The Commandments given through Moses were given in order that we might know more clearly which way leads to life and which leads to death. For at the beginning of the list of blessings for following the commandments it is written, “Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 28.1. Or in other words, they would subdue the earth. But concerning the curses it is written, “So all these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the LORD your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you.” – Deuteronomy 28.45. Or in other words they would die.

The New Testament also presents two ways, one of death and another of life, and these two ways are opposed to each other. Representative of this are the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians 5.16-26:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Thus Scripture does not present us with a contract, but with a choice, a choice between two ways, one which leads to life and another which leads to death. In Advent we are called to recognize our sinfulness and repent as we await the coming of our Lord. Let us do this so that when He comes we will be found working as the wise servant and serving others (Matt. 24.45-47) and not as the unwise one and be found exploiting and beating them (Μatt. 24.48-51). Let us continue on the way of life. Let our prayer throughout this Advent season truly be:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

 

 

The Sun Shines Even in the Cold

There’s a weather phenomenon that I’ve become familiar with since moving to Texas: sunny and cold. To a native Floridian like myself it seems quite strange that it could be sunny and yet the surrounding air feel cold at the same time. These two things should not go together. The sun is warm. It produces heat and makes things warm. How could the sun be brightly shining and yet the air around me be cold? Is the sun somehow defective?

There’s a spiritual phenomenon that I’ve become familiar with during my life: sunny and cold. To a life-long Christian like myself it seems quite strange to have fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and yet for them to feel distant at the same time. These two things should not go together. God indwells me. God is near me. How can God indwell me and yet feel distant? Is God somehow defective?

In reality I know that the sun is not defective; it is producing as much heat as it always has. Yet this does not make me feel any warmer.

In reality I know that God is not distant from me; He is as close as He always has been. Yet this does not make Him feel any closer.

If I put on a coat I will feel warmer, but this will not change the fact that the air around me feels cold.

If I spend time praying, reading Scripture, worshiping with others, and fellowshiping with others I will feel encouraged and persevere in my faith, but this will not change the fact that God feels distant.

I know that it is only a matter of time before winter ceases and the air around me feels warm once again. I must persevere through the winter if I want to feel it again.

I know that it is only a matter of time before winter ceases and God feels near to me once again. I must persevere through the winter if I want to feel it again.

When winter comes around again, and you are huddled around the dying fire of your faith, clinging desperately to every scrap of warmth, wondering why things are not the way they seem like they should be, take note of those around you because they have passed the test. The spiritual winters in our lives, those times when God feels distant and we struggle with our faith, are tests not only for those of us who are in the midst them, but also for our Christian brethren who see us in the midst of them.

The sun does not cease to shine during winter.

God does not cease to be near us during our winters.

We should not cease to be near our Christian brethren in their winters. They are not expecting us to bring about spring. They just don’t want to be alone during the winter. Do not merely pray for them, but huddle with them around their dying fire, however low it may be. God has not abandoned either of you and will see both of you through. Spring will come, and it will be evident then that God is in you because you have loved as God loves.

What is a Holy Life?

What does it mean to live a holy life? Living a holy life should be the goal of any Christian, but how do we know if we are doing this? Certainly we will never live a perfectly holy life, but we can never even attempt to live it if we don’t know what it looks like. During the course of my studies this semester I came across what I consider to be the two aspects of a perfectly holy life: (1) sinlessness and (2) obedience to God.

Sinlessness. This means, as you might expect, a life without sin. Anytime you do something that God has declared wrong or commanded not be done, like lust, lie, or covet for example you have committed a sin. Even the greatest most perfect Christian on the planet sins multiple times per day; it is so embedded in our nature that we will cannot but help but commit it.

Obedience. This means doing the things that God has commanded to be done, like loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself. This also includes things that God may have commanded you personally to do, such as taking a certain job or preparing to enter a certain vocation.

While in theory these two aspects can be separated out into neat definitions this isn’t so easy to do in reality. In reality these two aspects are so intertwined that they are inseparable. The more you sin the greater its influence becomes over your thoughts and actions. The less you sin the less its influence becomes. However it is not enough to simply not sin. Something must take the place of sin’s influence otherwise all you are doing is striving for a moral purity which you will soon cease striving for as you will quickly realize that moral purity by itself is quite pointless.

The counter to the influence of sin is the influence of the Holy Spirit. This is where obedience comes in. When we are obedient to the commands of God we become more sanctified (that is, more like Christ) than we were previously. To be sure, obedience is not simply mere external actions, but is internal as well. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their disobedience, which ironically stemmed for their striving to be obedient, because even though outwardly they were doing everything that God required they were doing it for the praise of men and not the praise of God.

So, in short, living a holy life involves not only sinning less, but also being obedient to God’s commands. As Christians we are called to live a holy life (Leviticus 11.44; 1 Thessalonians 4.7). The Hebrew word for “holiness” means “to cut off” or “mark off.” We are called to live a life that is marked off for God. We cannot be ministers for a holy God if we ourselves are not pursuing holiness. If we are content as we are we will never minister God, but only ourselves. If we want to minister God we must mark ourselves off for him so that we will become more like him and it will become evident to others that we are serving him and not ourselves.

Holiness does not merely involve a life free from sin. It also involves a life lived in obedience to God. We can see this most clearly in the life of Christ. Not only did Jesus not sin, but he was also obedient to the Father’s will, even to dying on a cross.

In closing I will note that pursuing a holy life doesn’t mean that everyone will like you. Hopefully your Christian brethren will appreciate you, but I think that those outside the Christian faith will most likely despise you. God’s holiness reveals just how depraved and sinful we are (see Isaiah 6) and that causes one of two responses in people: (1) they recognize and lament their sinful state, or (2) they despise God. If God’s holiness is seen in a sinful human person (though certainly to a far lesser extent than in God himself) I think we can expect the same. After all, Jesus perfectly revealed (ministered) the Father to Israel and they did not accept his testimony, but instead ascribed his power to Satan and crucified him.

I Like The New Pope

If I were a Roman Catholic I think I would be really proud right about now. I think the new Pope has set a good example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus: to be a servant of all.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Matthew 20:25-28 ESV)

This new Pope seems to have rejected the luxuries that previous Popes have embraced in favor of showing himself to be on equal footing with others. Peggy Noonan notes several things that point to the humility of Pope Francis:*

  • His plain regalia as he stood on the balcony
  • Request for crowd to pray for him before he prayed for them
  • Loves the poor and even gave the cardinal’s palace in Buenos Aires to a missionary order that had no money
  • Lives in an apartment
  • Cooks his own food
  • Rides the bus
  • Picks up his own luggage
  • Pays his own hotel bill
  • Shuns security
  • Refuses a limousine
  • Gets on a minibus with the cardinals
  • Visits a church in a modest car in rush hour traffic
  • Greeted the people before greeting the Vatican officials and staffers following his election
  • Reportedly refuses to sit on a throne and meets his fellow cardinals standing
The White Crucifixion by Chagall

The White Crucifixion by Chagall, reportedly Pope Francis’ favorite painting

Many people seem to be hoping for change with this new Pope and I think change is exactly what they’re going to get, though perhaps not the change they are hoping for. The new Pope will probably not institute any progressive reforms or change the church’s stance on gay marriage, abortion, or contraception; this is not the change Catholicism needs.

The change Catholicism needs is a change of heart and mind, and I think the new Pope is quite capable of instituting this change if he continues being the servant that he seems to have been his entire life. It seems to this Protestant that for too long the Roman Church has communicated (whether intentionally or not) that it is superior to the people and its job is to rule over the people and the people are to serve them. This is a reversal of the order that Jesus intended for His followers. Jesus called His disciples to be servants of all, just as He was a servant of all and laid down His life for all.

If the Roman Church can embody this simple principle of servanthood it will bring some long overdue change to Roman Catholicism. People need to see Rome as interested in serving them rather than ruling over them. Once this change happens I think people will begin to see and embrace the God that Rome has over zealously protected these many years. They will begin to see that Jesus came to give life to His followers, not to scare or force them into obeying His teachings with the threat of eternal damnation. Pope Francis seems to understand this.

My hope and prayer is that Pope Francis continues what appears to be a great example of servanthood and that his example permeates throughout the Roman Church. Like it or not the Roman Church is the face of Christianity in the west, and a well received and appreciated Roman Church is good for the rest of western Christendom; we are yolked to them whether we like it or not.

*My apologies if you have issues viewing Noonan’s article. If you cannot view it please let me know.