Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sin & Salvation # 4 - "The Life"

Did you hear about the Buddhist monk who asked the hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.” He gave two dollars for a dollar fifty dog, and the vendor didn’t hand him back any coins. “What about my change?” the monk asked. The vendor replied, “Change comes from within.”

This wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t for words called homonyms. A homonym is when two words have the exact same spelling, but really have different meanings entirely. For example, the word “cleave” can either mean “to cut” or it can mean “to hang on.” Sometimes no harm comes from mixing up two words like this, but—but just imagine the man who misunderstood the biblical injunction for a man to “leave father and mother, and cleave to his wife!”

As funny as it sounds, it’s no laughing matter when people misunderstand what the Bible says. But sometimes the Bible can be confusing. For example, in the New Testament, the word flesh can have two different meanings. Often, it can mean the body or skin. But many times, it doesn’t mean that at all. Often, when the Bible refers to the flesh, it has nothing to do with meat and muscle, but with the sinful nature. For thousands of years, many Christians have misunderstood what the Bible has to say about flesh, believing that anything that has to do with the spirit is good, and that anything related to the body is evil. This is why believers throughout the centuries have abused their bodies, believing that somehow it will strengthen the spirit. This is not what we mean when we talk about the conflict between spirit and flesh. We do not mean that the spirit is opposed to the body, but that the spirit is opposed to the sinful nature. Romans 8 talks about this struggle, and it begins with our relationship to the Law:

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (vv.:2-4 NASB).

As we’ve been studying sin and salvation, we learned that Sin is more than the breaking of a rule. Individual sins are misdeeds, acts of rebellion, and the omission of good deeds—but they are symptoms of the disease of Sin, which is the power of spiritual corruption at work in us. The Greek word sarx means “flesh,” but it also means “sinful nature,” and the disease of Sin. The Law identified the disease in the human heart, but was unable to eradicate it. So God sent His Son to show us God’s grace, heal us of the disease, forgive and alleviate the symptoms. Because of what Jesus does for us, Romans 8:1 (NASB) says, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This salvation comes by the forgiveness of sin for everyone who believes. Former sinners are fully acquitted of their rebellious actions, and are made right with God.

But Jesus didn’t come just to transfer us from the realm of darkness to the realm of light; He came to transform us into His image and glory. Romans 12:2a (NASB) says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” 1 Corinthians 2:16 (NASB) says, “We have the mind of Christ.” In that forgiveness, Jesus not only makes it so that we are cleansed by Jesus—He also makes it so that we can live more pleasing lives for Him. This is because the mind of Christ, dwelling in us, transforms our minds.

So then, life in the Spirit means transformation. In the following verses, understand the word flesh to mean not the body, but the sinful nature. Replace that phrase every time you read the word flesh.

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him (vv. 5-9 NASB).

What does it mean to have your mind set on the things of the flesh? What is this behavior that can put you in such peril? It can’t mean that any Christian who has ever had a sinful thought is without salvation—that would negate the grace and unconditional love of God. So what does it mean? There are many “Christians” who still have their minds set on the sinful nature. This means that they still believe that the flesh controls them—they still see themselves as evil, corrupt, and sinful to the core. They say that they are “sinners, saved by grace,” yet by saying so, they have just identified themselves as sinners rather than the saints that they are. Christians who continue to see themselves this way have not been transformed—they have not truly received the saving grace of Christ. Intellectually they understand that Jesus died for them, but spiritually they still haven’t let that truth change them. They are not truly united with Christ.

The book of Hosea is about God’s faithfulness to His people, despite their continued unfaithfulness. Illustrative of this, the prophet Hosea’s wife Gomer takes to prostitution, but he forgives and redeems her. She then has a choice. She can either focus her mind on her renewed marriage, or she can continually beat herself up for her former unfaithfulness. She can define herself as a new woman, or she can define herself as just a harlot whose husband for some reason still loves her. To set her mind on the things of the flesh means to feel so guilty that she refuses to receive her husband’s grace, and refuses to forgive herself. To set her mind on her marriage is life and peace. So every Christian needs to fully embrace the grace of God, and no longer define themselves according to the sinful nature, the flesh. Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” When we fully grasp this, our minds will be set on the Spirit—and that is life and peace.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sin & Salvation # 3 - The Cross

In October of 2015, a 31-year-old father named Justin McCary took his 10-year-old daughter Haley and his niece rock collecting on a piece of rail road track near Chattanooga, Tennessee. They were having a good day until they heard a CSX train approaching. McCary’s niece was able to make it to safety, but Haley’s foot got stuck in the train track. Her father scrambled to her as quickly as he could, working frantically to free his daughter before the train bore down on them. He was able to rescue her, pushing her fifteen feet into the creek below—but not before the train struck him and killed him. Justin’s cousin Pamela said of him, ““He died a hero today, saving his daughter from being hit by a train in a terrifying tragedy. He was a good man with an enormous personality. We will never get over this.”[i]

Stories like this one both inspire and sadden us as we think about a father’s love for his child, and the lengths a parent will go to rescue a child in danger. There is no distance a good parent will not go, no sacrifice a good parent will not make, to rescue a beloved child. All four Gospels record the story of what God the Perfect Parent did to rescue humanity from the scourge of sin. Upon the cross, Jesus bore full impact of sin, so that we could be set free.

For the past two weeks, we’ve been talking about sin and salvation. We saw how sins (with a lower case S) are individual rebellious actions that are symptoms of the greater disease of Sin (with an upper case S). Sin is humanity’s voluntary estrangement from God, as well as our separation from people and creation that are created in God’s image. We learned that, “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”[ii] But we also learned that our rescuing God provides a way of salvation. Though some believe God gave the Law as a means of salvation, what it really did was make humanity more aware of its own trespass. In fact, it created more lawbreakers, because without law there can be no trespass. The Law cannot save—but it does point to our need for a Savior.

How does Jesus’ death on the cross heal us of the disease of Sin—estrangement from God? The cross itself represents the worst evil that human Sin could invent—and Jesus willingly embraced that humiliation and suffering. He didn’t need to lay his flayed back on the wooden beam, yet he stretched out his arms to embrace us all the same. Jesus positioned himself between two thieves, identifying with the worst of humanity. Georgia Harkness said, “The cross [is] God's way of uniting suffering with love.”[iii] When one of those fallen souls scorned Him, Jesus took it, along with the derision of the whole crowd. Yet when one of those same sinners turned to him in faith, Jesus offered salvation. So the Savior still embraces all who turn to him. This means that when people voluntarily separate themselves from God, God chooses to embrace them. Jesus’ identification with fallen humanity on the cross bridges the gap and reconciles the world to God.

Jesus not only healed us of the disease of Sin—Jesus also forgave us of our sins. He canceled the power of the disease, but He also eradicated our sense of guilt for having the disease (if we allow that forgiveness to flow). As He looked down from the cross, his body broken from the scourge of Sin, He saw the faces of those who had done this to him. Beneath the cross stood the soldiers who had abused his body, and the religious leaders who had set the whole thing up. The crowd that had shouted “Hosanna!” condemned and now mocked him. Those closest to him were his mortal enemies, while he saw at a distance those friends who should have been nearest to his side. One had betrayed Him, one had denied him, and all had abandoned him. Yet, as much as all of them had wounded Him, Jesus pardoned them all. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”[iv] But Jesus didn’t simply forgive all the people standing on that hillside. He pronounced forgiveness for all humaniy. 1 Peter 3:18a (NASB) says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God.” Jesus died once for all people, for all sins, and for all time. As the old song goes, “When He was on the cross, you were on His mind.” No person is beyond redemption; no sin is unforgiven in the past, present, or future. All you must do is receive that grace.

The story of the cross doesn’t end with Jesus giving grace. It continues with believers receiving grace that is freely given. Jesus’ cross that saves us becomes the cross we carry to draw others to His salvation. In Matthew 16:24 (NASB), Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Some may think this a hardship, but Samuel Rutherford says, “Christ's cross is such a burden as sails are to a ship or wings to a bird.”[v] Taking up our cross means taking up His mission, being bearers of grace to a wounded world.

Just as Jesus paid for grace with his life, sometimes cross-carrying can be costly. Today in the Word gives a perfect example of believers living out Christlike love:
Boarding the SS Dorchester on a dreary winter day in 1943 were 903 troops and four chaplains, including Moody alumnus Lt. George Fox. World War II was in full swing, and the ship was headed across the icy North Atlantic where German U-boats lurked. At 12:00 on the morning of February 3, a German torpedo ripped into the ship. "She's going down!" the men cried, scrambling for lifeboats.
A young GI crept up to one of the chaplains. "I've lost my life jacket," he said. "Take this," the chaplain said, handing the soldier his jacket. Before the ship sank, each chaplain gave his life jacket to another man. The heroic chaplains then linked arms and lifted their voices in prayer as the Dorchester went down. Lt. Fox and his fellow pastors were awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross.[vi]

Carrying the cross means being like Jesus. It means being like Lt. Fox and the other chaplains, like Justin McCary. It means putting yourself last for the sake of God’s people. It means receiving the grace of God and sharing with the greatest and the least. Today as we talk about the cross, let’s not leave it on Calvary. Let’s take it to the streets—let’s carry the cross, and follow Him.

[i] “Father sacrifices himself to save daughter from getting hit by train.”   John Hadden.  August 2, 2016.
[ii] 1777 New England Primer
[iv] Luke 23:33 NASB
[vi] Today in the Word, April 1, 1992.  August 2, 2016.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Sin & Salvation # 2 - "The Law"

Last week we talked about The Fall. Not the Autumn, when the leaves change and fall to the earth, but in Eden, when our hearts changed and fell from God’s blessing. The first sin, we learned, was not when the Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit, but when their pride told them that they were separate from God and needed to do something to attain some imagined status. The first sin was their dissatisfaction with what God had given them, and ambition that broke their relationship with the Creator. Acts of disobedience may be called sins (with a lower-case S) , but these are only symptom of the disease called Sin (upper case S). People may have problems with sins, but Sin is the real problem of all humanity.

Elisabeth Elliot, at Urbana 76, told of her brother Thomas Howard. Their mother let him play with paper bags she'd saved if he put them away afterwards. One day she walked into the kitchen to find them strewn all over the floor. Tom was out at the piano with his father singing hymns. When confronted, he protested, "But Mom, I want to sing." His father stated, "It's no good singing God's praise if you're disobedient."

Elliot is correct when she says that disobedient (sinful) actions get in the way of our true worship of God. But Romans 7 says that the greater problem than sins is Sin. Taking every opportunity it can, Sin creates disobedient actions in us. Sin is the disease; sins are the symptoms. The disease is broken relationship with God; acts of misbehavior are just the outgrowth of that disease. Thomas Howard’s sinful symptom may have been leaving the bags out, but Sin told him that he could get away with disobeying his mom as long as he were doing something that looked innocent. From the beginning, God knew that in order to save humanity, God needed to do away with not just the symptoms, but the disease itself.

The problem was that people didn’t really know that they had a disease. Like cancer that eats away from the inside without you ever knowing it, Sin was wreaking its deadly havoc before it ever showed symptoms that could be observed. God wanted to deal with the disease itself, yet there were no signs or symptoms. Oh yes—people did know that there was something wrong when brother killed brother or a man slept with his neighbor’s wife. But they didn’t understand that there was a much larger problem. So God gave the Law, which was sort of a spiritual test that revealed the Sin problem that lay beneath the surface.

I remember the first time I had horrible pain in my lower back. An MRI revealed kidney stones that I never knew about. I knew I had pain, but didn’t know what was causing it. Without the MRI, I wouldn’t have known about the stones. You might say that the stones are analogous to Sin, but in reality they are a closer parallel to sins. You see, stones weren’t the root problem; they were merely symptoms that needed to be dealt with. I needed to pass the stones—a painful process. But then, after that, I needed to have them analyzed. I discovered my stones were caused by too much oxalate—a waste product that could be eliminated by proper diet. People who never have their stones analyzed never deal with the root problem, so they keep having them. They treat the symptoms, but not the disease. But now that my stones have been analyzed, I can avoid oxalates and kidney stones altogether. The Law is like that medical testing—like the MRI and the stone analysis. It gets to the root cause of the problem and makes us aware not just of sins, but of Sin in our lives.

When Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments that were written by God’s own hand, he gave the people the foundation stones of the Jewish Law. Yes, they were about behavior (do this, don’t do that). That means that they were about sins. But they were about more than that. God gave the Law as a sort of spiritual test to reveal the problem of Sin in the human heart. The first four indicate our fallen relationship with God, and the final six reveal our broken relationship with humanity. The purpose of the Law wasn’t to create a bunch of lawbreakers [where there is no law, there also is no violation (Romans 4:15 NASB)]. It also wasn’t to turn us all into a bunch of mindless rule-followers, because the Law has no power to save. The purpose of the Law was to show us where Sin resides in our hearts so that God’s grace can deal with the root cause. In Exodus 20:19-21 (NASB), after the Commandments are given, the people say to Moses:

“Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.

Even in the wake of receiving the Law which reveals their sins, the Israelites give powerful evidence of the Sin that still resides within them. Try as they might to keep just ten laws, they reveal their inherent problem of broken relationship with God. They want Moses to do the spirituality for them, showing that they are no more spiritually awake than the first man and woman who believed themselves to be separate from God. So instead of developing intimacy with the Creator as Moses did, the Israelites are content to keep God on the mountain or in heaven or anywhere they are not. They are content to try to keep rules and mitigate symptoms and sins, rather than allowing God to heal their disease and save them from Sin.

We believers have the same problem as the Israelites if we focus so much on the symptoms that we forget that Jesus gives grace that heals us of the disease itself. We get so hung up on our own sins, heaping guilt on ourselves for the things that we’ve done, that we ask God’s forgiveness over and over without realizing that we’re already healed. The sins that we experience aren’t the disease itself—merely the recurring symptoms from the Sin that has already been healed. Some diseases, once healed, are gone forever. But the sickness of sin leaves marks on our souls, just as our Sin left scars on Jesus when He bore it on the cross. This side of heaven, we’ll never be free from those scars—we’ll still fail and experience symptoms of the disease. Yet what peace we have to know that the root cause of Sin is gone forever—healed by Jesus, our Savior. What joy that when we reach glory, even our scars will be healed as we are glorified with Christ!

As we read the Law in the Word of God, we need to remember that it was never intended for us who have received the grace of Christ. It’s there to lead us to Christ—but once we receive His grace, we are freed from the need for Law. The Law never saved anybody. Jesus saves, and He saves entirely. Romans 3:20b-22a (NASB) says,
…By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe

If the righteousness of God has been made manifest apart from the Law, then we know it comes only through the gift of God, the grace of Jesus Christ. Salvation comes not through being good enough according to the Law, but by receiving the free gift of life from the only One who is good enough to give it. He is our Savior—the forgiver of our sins, and the healer of our Sin.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Sin & Salvation # 1 - "The Fall"

In 2010, I wrote:

In his book, What God Wants to Know, Bruce Larson tells about a story from a family member who was a conservationist. She and her husband and her five-year-old son were on vacation in Florida when they saw a sign saying “Naturist Camp.” The conservationist assumed that a naturist camp was the same thing as a naturalist camp, so they stopped to check it out. When they reached the beach, they learned their error. The naturist camp was actually a nudist camp, full of vacationers in the buff. Some swam, some rode bicycles—in all their glory. Eyes wide, and pointing at the naked cyclists, they boy said, “Look Mom and Dad. They’re not wearing safety helmets!”

Not long ago, I read about White Tail Chapel in Ivor, Virginia. This congregation within White Tail Resort, wears not suits, but their birthday suits, every Sunday. Now, I’m not advocating nude church like Pastor Allen Parker does,[i] but the point is that there’s something honest about nakedness. This is why the Bible says that in Eden, Adam and Eve “were both naked and were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25[ii]).” The nakedness of Eden represents innocence, simplicity, trust, and the lack of judgment. There was no reason to say that nakedness or clothing was good or evil, because everything was as God created it to be, and God had declared it to be “very good (Gen 2:31).” Nakedness wasn’t wrong, because nothing was wrong. Then sin entered the picture, and it all turned bad.

Now, I know what you’ve always been taught. You think the fall came when Adam and Eve ate the apple that God told them not to eat. Sin entered the world through one wrong bite. But I’m going to tell you that sin entered the world through a different set of teeth.

Sin entered the world when Adam and Eve let the serpent sink his teeth into their minds. You see, we’ve got it all wrong if we think that the first sin was eating a piece of fruit. Eating the fruit was the symptom of sin, but sin came before that. Genesis 3:6 says that Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise.” The first sin wasn’t eating a piece of fruit. Fruit is good—and this piece of fruit, in and of itself, wasn’t bad for her to eat. What made the action bad was the attitude of sin that said, “I want to be something other than what God made me to be", and I’m going to do whatever is necessary to change that.” She saw that the fruit would make her wise. In other words, she drew a distinction between wise and unwise. She said, “I’m not wise, but the fruit will make me wise.” She differentiated between good and evil things in the garden (note the name of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil), even though God had declared it all to be good. That was the sin—the disease. Eating the fruit was simply the symptom.

We’ve been taught that sin is breaking rules. But is that what sin is—breaking rules? Jesus said that it’s not murder or adultery that are the problems in humanity—it’s the attitude that causes them (Mt 5:21-22, 27-28). Sin is the disease of an attitude that says we’re separate from God and from our fellow human beings. Sin is the pride that places our desires above God’s will or above the needs of others. Sin is when we put ourselves in the divine seat and think ourselves wise enough to be judges. Sin is a curse that found its way into Adam and Eve’s hearts before they ever took the first bite of their fruit snack. Sinking their teeth in was just the symptom of the disease that already had hold of their hearts. Sin is the disease; sins are the behaviors.

How do we know that the problem was their attitude, and not just their actions? Verse 7 says, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.” There was nothing wrong with their nakedness before they ate the fruit, and there was nothing wrong with their nakedness afterwards. What changed? Their attitude. Suddenly they saw themselves as separate from God, separate from creation, as non-natural. Insisting that they were non-natural, they felt the need to distinguish themselves from the way God had originally made them, and they covered up.

And we have been trying to cover up ever since. Cover our sin, cover our pride, cover our mistakes. We try to cover it with religion, thinking that if we can only make enough rules for ourselves, we’ll be okay. But we couldn’t keep just one rule—what makes us think we can keep more? Jesus didn’t come so we could follow the rules; He came so God would rule our hearts. Instead of giving us religious rules (the first rule never worked to begin with), Jesus gives us a relationship with God that guides us.

In Romans 3:23-24, the apostle Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” The 1777 New England Primer said, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Romans 5:15 says, “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” How did Jesus do this? If sin was humanity’s attempt to say, “We’re separate from God,” then Jesus is God’s response, saying, “I’m one with humanity.” Separation is defeated through the God-Man Christ, who heals the disease of sin and counteracts the Fall. On the cross Jesus declared forgiveness, not just of our sins (behaviors), but of our sin (disease of Self).

You don’t have to go to a nudist church to know that God sees our flaws. Hebrews 4:13b says, “All things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” We may try to cover up our sin, but God sees it all. Instead of covering our nudity, God restores us and returns to us to the innocence of Eden. Because of what Christ did for us, we can be like the first family in the garden—unashamed.

[i]  July 20, 2016.
[ii] All scriptures taken form the NASB.