Monday, August 27, 2012

THE PROMISE

“Ev’ry promise in the Book is mine;
ev’ry chapter, ev’ry verse, ev'ry line;
All are blessings of His love divine.
Ev’ry promise in the Book is mine.
                                                                                    Children’s’ Bible Song
                                                                                    author unknown

You can Google this song and see some really cute kids singing.  So sweet.  But is it true?  Is every promise in the Bible actually “mine”?  Can I “claim the promises”?

Well (says this curmudgeon) not really!  There are many “promises” in the Bible that are not given to me as a New Testament Christian, along with many laws, prophecies, threats and predictions.

When I taught Bible Study Methods, at the College of Biblical Studies, I taught my students to look at the text’s context and to ask questions of it.  And one of the first and, I would add, one of the most important questions is, “Who?”  Who is speaking and to whom is he speaking?  The correct answers to these should clarify a lot of the text and eliminate many misinterpretations.

This seems simple enough, but many of us don’t ask these questions and so become frustrated in our faith.  We blame, or at least question, God for not keeping His promises to us, even though He may not have made them to us.  Or we pray and strive and work ourselves all up trying to get God to do what He never said He’d do.

One promise which is claimed by many is 2 Chronicles 7:14 (I quote from the KJV).

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

For a great portion of my church-going life I have heard this “promise” quoted.  I have seen it on posters, on e-mails and facebook, often in bright red, white and blue colors, with an eagle and flags decorating or surrounding it, sometimes even accompanied by patriotic hymns.  This is, I’m told, the key to revival in America.  If we, God’s people, would only keep our end of the deal then God will keep His promise and send revival on America!

And so day after day, year after year, we keep humbling, praying, seeking and turning, yet our nation keeps sliding deeper and deeper into sin (especially, it seems, sexual sin).

What gives?  Why doesn’t God keep His promise?

Well, perhaps we should ask our “who” questions.  It is clear that the speaker is the LORD.  That’s easy.  And it is also clear that He is speaking to King Solomon, the king of the people of Israel, as a representative of that nation.  The context is clear as well.  Solomon had completed building and dedicating the Temple of the LORD in Jerusalem.  He had prayed a long beautiful prayer of dedication in which he had asked the Lord to hear (2 Chronicles 6:12-42).

He had given specific instances when prayer would be made from that “house,” with specific requests for the LORD to hear and forgive.  It is one of the most beautiful examples of prayer in the Bible and is well worth our study.

And our “promise” is a part of the LORD’s response to Solomon (2 Chronicles 7:11-18), in which He reaffirms His covenant and promises to Solomon as the son of David.  Verse 13 sheds a lot of light on verse 14.  “If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; …” Verse 13 is connected to verse 14 in Hebrew by a Waw (or Vav – usually translated as “and”).  We could begin verse 14 with “and” as some translations do.  Looking back to Solomon’s prayers in chapter 6, we see that this desolation of the land itself is God’s punishment on Israel for their sin.

So what right do we have to make this promise ours?  The LORD’s “people” here are not the church, but Israel.  The “land” is not the USA but their own farmland.  The healing is a restoration of that land.  Though as God’s New Covenant people, we can seek application of His promise to His Old Covenant people, we unlike Israel; have no present “land” of our own.  We are citizens of a heavenly Kingdom.

I know this sounds like nit-picking, but I believe an incorrect interpretation of this and similar “promises” has led to much improper behavior among God’s New Covenant people.  There are three distinct entities that are confused here and we must be careful to maintain that distinction.  The church is not Israel.  The church is not the USA.  God has not promised to “heal” or “revive” America.  America is part of “the Kingdom of this World,” which will someday (though not as of this writing) “become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ” (Revelation 11:15b).

Please note:  I am not saying that we should not pray for our country.  We are exhorted many times in the New Testament to pray “for kings and all who are in authority that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and seriousness” (1 Timothy 2:2).

Monday, August 20, 2012

HOPE SPRINGS


Uni and I recently went to see the movie, Hope Springs starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as Kay and Arnold, a middle aged married couple who had recently celebrated their 31st anniversary by upgrading their cable.  Sound boring?

Well yes and no.  The boring exterior, as with many “happily” married couples, covers up sad, deeply frustrated lives.

As we see Kay in her night gown gazing at herself in the mirror, fluffing her hair, primping, our first thought is of how attractive she looks.  Then we are drawn to the sadness in her eyes.  Meryl Streep is a great actor.  She portrays a look I’ve seen before on many married women – friends, family, women I’ve counseled, even at times the woman who lives in my house.
She opens the door of Arnold’s bedroom where he lays reading.  That’s right, they sleep in separate bedrooms!  No not tonight; some excuses I can’t remember.

The movie does not have a complicated plot.  It’s a simple story of a married couple who are trying to bring their marriage back to what it should be and once was (or at least she’s trying.  No secret affairs.  They’ve been “faithful” to one another for 31 years.

Anyway Kay comes across a book on marriage written by a Doctor Feld.  She takes her hard-earned savings and purchases reservations for the two for a week’s intensive counseling in the quaint little town of Hope Springs, Maine (where everyone seems to be something of a therapist – the waitress at the café, the bartender, the maître d’ at the restaurant, the clerk at the bookstore – all except the old geezer at the museum.)

Arnold grudgingly goes along, complaining all the while.  “Didn’t I buy you a new refrigerator?”  “Four thousand dollars for one week!  We could have gotten a new roof!”  Tommy Lee Jones plays a perfect grump!

As we watch the movie in the theater, there are bits of what sounds like nervous laughter from the audience.  There’s enough comic relief to allow this, though I suspect the story is getting a bit too close to home for some.

It took a while for me to get used to seeing Steve Carell as Dr. Feld.  We’re used to seeing and hearing him talking seriously, but saying stupid things.  But here he’s all seriousness and compassion as he questions and counsels Kay and Arnold.  It is here in the counseling room that the truth that by this time we’ve suspected comes out – they haven’t had sex for years.  Arnold can’t remember the last time; Kay can.  Yet they both want it.

We find that the problem is not all Arnold’s fault (though I felt like shouting at him a few times); Kay has her hang-ups as well.

Some viewers may be uncomfortable with the homework assignments and Kay and Arnold’s efforts to carry them out.  Just remember they are married.

The movie does have a happy ending, though I’m not sure how we got there.  In fact, we’re never sure till almost the end if it’s going to work out.

I recommend and have recommended this movie to every married couple – especially if you’ve been married for a while.  Not that every marriage is in the same shape as Kay and Arnold’s, but it is a possibility that any marriage can go this way.  And I suspect that many marriages are moving in this direction.  One temptation is to tell ourselves we’re not this messed up; our marriage is a lot better than that.  Rather, I think we should look for similarities and seek ways to avoid them, to seek correction before we end up like Kay and Arnold.

And for my Christian friends:  no, this is not a “Christian” movie.  It is not, as many in that category, a disguised sermon.  Don’t go see this movie to find simplistic solutions.  You won’t find them here or in any of those preachy movies.  Go to see yourselves!  And if you don’t see yourselves in this movie, the problem may not be with the movie.  It may be with you.

Friday, August 10, 2012

ROGER WILLIAMS AND “SOUL LIBERTIE”


My hero of American history is a man named Roger Williams (1603-83).  It seems that few – too few – Americans know of this man and his contributions to the making of America.  Yet, he was the one person who most clearly articulated the principles of freedom of religion and speech, later embodied in our Constitution.  In fact, he was the first modern man to state these principles and to actually form a government in which they were practiced.

Though I have long been a lover of Roger Williams and have read a bit about him, I was excited to find and read a new volume with the rather weighty title, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul:  Church, State and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.

This is a volume I would recommend to anyone who is interested in American history, especially the thinking and actions that preceded our founding.  I would also recommend it to any who are concerned about the separation of church and state and its implications for today.  And I recommend it to every Christian who is struggling with keeping a balance between his/her faith and the so-called social issues.

A little background is necessary (see AN AMERICAN HERO).  Williams was a Puritan preacher, who if the reader recalls his history, was the founder of the colony which later became the present state of Rhode Island (officially Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”), the first government in America to allow freedom of speech and religion, or as Williams termed it “Soul Libertie,” and to outlaw slavery.  It was in its time, according to Mr. Barry, “the freest society in the world” (page 352).

The book is more than simply a biography of Roger Williams.  It includes lengthy historical backgrounds of church/state relations in England and America in the first half of the 17th century, including the reigns of King James and King Charles (I and II) and the English Civil War.  It introduces us to many historical characters who played parts in the struggles in England:  Oliver Cromwell, John Milton and Henry Vane among others.

The author attempts to point out the men who influenced the thinking of Roger Williams.  Two stand out:  Sir Edward Coke, the great jurist and Sir Francis Bacon, the great political and scientific thinker.  While Williams was a deep scholar of Scriptures, he was also one who read and thought broadly.

We read of the persecution and suppression of Puritans by the Kings and Archbishop William Laud, and of the Puritans’ establishment of colonies (then known as “plantations”) in the new world, not only to escape these persecutions, but to set up outposts of the Kingdom of God on earth.  Of course, the primary one of these was the Massachusetts Bay Plantation, headed by John Winthrop, whose “City upon a Hill” sermon is still quoted (and sometimes misquoted) by American presidents and politicians.

The author, however, brings to our attention what many of those who idealize this particular time and place ignore:  life under Puritan rule was in many ways as oppressive as life under the Anglican Church in England.  Though the Puritans were persecuted for their non-conformity in England, in America the tables were turned, they became the enforcers of conformity.  As in England (and all of Europe and the rest of the world) church and state were hopelessly entangled.  Church attendance was required of everyone, even though not all were considered qualified to be church members.  The state was the enforcer of the teachings of the church, not only “moral” laws, but even of the doctrines taught.

And so when Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631, he soon became a problem.  He attacked the alliance of church and state, teaching that civil “magistrates had no authority to enforce the ‘First Table’” – i.e. the first four commandments, those having to do with a person’s relationship with God.  He taught against the taking of oaths.  He also taught that the land belonged to the Native Americans and could only be acquired through honest trade or negotiation and that the crown had no authority to grant it to whomever they desired.

Worst of all (to the Massachusetts’ Puritans), Williams believed in freedom of conscience!  Though he was a Puritan, a solid Calvinist and in total doctrinal agreement with the Massachusetts preachers, he was in total disagreement with their enforcement of these beliefs on all.  He taught that one could not be forced to believe!  To force a person to externally put on the trappings of true religion was to make him a hypocrite.  The author however informs us, “His reasoning was not that of most modern supporters of separation; rather, he sought to protect the church, believing the profanity of the state could only contaminate the church’s purity” (pages 187, 188).

After continued struggles he was finally banished.  To make a long story short, the remainder of the book is concerned with the establishment, maintenance and legitimizing of Providence Plantation.  Providence and surroundings became a refuge for all sorts of rejects from the Puritan colonies surrounding it.  Williams struggled to establish what later became known as a democracy.  He attempted to be a mediator and peacemaker during Indian wars and hostilities.  He travelled to England to obtain legitimacy for this “experiment.”  And all the while his Puritan neighbors were doing their best to assure that the experiment would fail.

The book presents this history as a fast-paced, moving drama.  Barry is a good story-teller.  The reader can feel the tension as William struggles on many fronts to give birth to and maintain the “plantation.”  How he actually gained royal approval is almost miraculous.  Certainly it was evidence of the divine “Providence” that was its namesake.

There are many heroes in American history.  It is dangerous to place any of them on pedestals, as they all are only human – sinners – and have their failings.  Roger Williams is no different and yet he stands out:
·        He was a man of genuine faith in Christ.
·        He was a man who attempted to make the Scriptures the basis for his life.
·        He was a lifelong student of the Scriptures.
·        He was a critical thinker, unafraid to follow the truth wherever it led.
·        He was unafraid to stand up for his principles, even at great personal cost.
·        He labored his whole life to actualize his principles.

The author does not divulge to us his own personal faith position.  But it is clear that he is a great admirer of a man so consistent in his faith and practice.

Monday, August 6, 2012

DISAGREEING WITH THE GREAT

Sometimes in evangelical (and other) circles, I find that to disagree with the teachings of a popular author or teacher makes one a bit suspect.  I’m not speaking here of disagreeing with the pastoral staff or leadership of the church, but of those “outside” the church.  There seems to be an aura around some teachers and to question their teachings or authority may be considered tantamount to questioning the Scriptures themselves.

I have often felt myself regarded with suspicion in these various groups because of my disagreements.  After all, I’ve questioned and disagreed with many hallowed persons, as a search through this blog will reveal.  I’m not trying to be disrespectful to these persons.  Many of them I admire greatly.  It’s just that (1) that’s the way I think – critically, and (2) I want the Scriptures to be the final arbiter in all doctrinal questions and not the teachings of men.

One teacher with whom I strongly disagree is John MacArthur, who I believe has taught a false gospel – the “gospel” of Lordship salvation.  As his teaching has been endorsed by many and as Mr. MacArthur himself is free to name names, I feel I need to give as my own the following apologia, which I quote from page xv of his book, The Gospel According to Jesus.”
“Many who disagree with me on this issue are faithful servants of God whose ministries have reaped abundant fruit for the kingdom.  It was necessary to quote and refute many of them by name in this book, not to try to discredit them or their ministries, but because it is hardly possible to address the concept of the gospel that is spreading throughout the church without quoting some of those who are teaching it.  There is no more important issue than the question of what gospel we ought to believe and proclaim.”

I was first introduced to the above mentioned book a number of years ago by a friend who told me that not only had reading it changed his life, but that it would do the same for all who read it and if every Christian did, it would revolutionize the church.  He also told me how I could obtain a free copy.

As I am never one to turn down a free book, I sent off for it.  And since it was claimed by my friend that it was life changing, I immediately began to study the book, red pen in hand.

I was impressed to see two forwards, written by men whom I have greatly respected.  I was astounded and grieved to find these men reinforcing the teachings in the book and making statements that I felt were unbiblical.

I went through the book page by page, marking arguments and writing notes in the margins.  On a blank page in front of the book, I wrote out what I felt was a series of clear rebuttals to what I believe are false doctrines and bad logic.  I kept the book in my library and used it for reference whenever questions regarding the doctrines taught in it would come up.

And then I did something stupid!  I loaned the book to a student.  Not long afterward he dropped out of class and moved without leaving a forwarding address.

I later obtained another copy, but haven’t felt like going back and repeating the exercise.  But a brief perusal is enough.  Most of my comments are from memory.

MacArthur’s great error is his insistence on conflating two different but related “calls” of Jesus:  His call to eternal life through faith in Him and His call to a life of discipleship.  MacArthur insists that those who separate these two calls are preaching a false gospel.  I would insist that to add any requirement than simple faith for eternal life is preaching a false gospel.

Mr. MacArthur feels that the gospel that I (and many, many others) proclaim is something new and is the reason for much that is wrong with the church.  But it’s the gospel I first heard nearly seven decades ago and the gospel I believed.

As I’ve said many times before, this is not a minor, trivial doctrinal dispute.  It lies right at the heart of our faith.

           Jesus Himself said:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have eternal life” (John 3:16).

John said:
“As many as received Him, He gave them the right to be children of God – to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).

Over and over in the Gospels we read that belief – faith – is the only requirement for salvation.

Jesus calls us to total commitment to Him it is true.  But that commitment is not the requirement for our eternal salvation.  In fact, it is only those who have exercised faith in Christ who are able to make that commitment.

I’ll not spend much time in these arguments as I’ve made them all before.  If the reader desires to read more on the subject, I recommend that he click on the following:
            CHEAP GRACE
            FREE GRACE
            PERSEVERANCEOF THE SAINTS
            PERSEVERANCEOF THE SAINTS, 2
            WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?
            COMMITMENT TO CHRIST
            HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

As I recall, the final remark I wrote in the book contained a question.  If someone asked Mr. MacArthur, “What must I do to be saved?” how would he answer?  I don’t believe he could!