Nominal Religion: Legalism

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As we put aside the discussion on religiosity and hypocrisy, it’s time to uncover the scourge of legalism. Coming from the minds of Christian men and women, many supposed religious rituals, rules, and traditions border on legalism. Paul taught about the obstacle of strict adherence to the law rather than the spirit in Colossians 2:20-23:

“Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

In this context, Paul is teaching those who were authentically converted to the teachings of Christ. In today’s culture, Paul might have said, “I know it’s a hard thing to do, but you shouldn’t live “socially and politically correct,” because now you are living a new life in Christ Jesus.” When we’ve grown up keeping “correctness” at the forefront of our minds, we are walking the beaten path of doing life as others see fit. We fall back into the oft repeated phrase of “that’s what you do,” and expect others to do the same. At this point, we could call ourselves “Trump-ed up talking heads,” or false teachers (pun intended). We are not the Lawgiver.

Therefore, to expound excessively about our own version of God’s perfect law at the intersection of judge and jury is putting ourselves above the law, as if we are the judges. Typical of C. S. Lewis, he injects a bit of wit and humor when he talks about the Christian rule of chastity in his book, Mere Christianity. Comparing his Animal self to his Diabolical self, he says “That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”

Yes, it is better to be neither.

Until next time…

 

Nominal Religion: Rebelling Against God

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Understanding hypocrisy and religiosity as they pertain to nominal religion is only the beginning. The Bible has much to add, in which the writers used metaphors and figures of speech to get a point across. In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon gives lectures:

“A troublemaker and a villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks maliciously with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart— he always stirs up conflict. Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy (Proverbs 6:12-15).

In this passage, it seems as though Solomon is describing a naughty boy. On the other hand, he might be metaphorically depicting an adult to make a point of showing the insincerity of self-styled religion — a person who leads others astray. A person who is rebelling against God.

The hypocrisy of those who try to create God’s will and spread false doctrine is a facade. Their concern is not about true and deep faith, but about money, popularity, and a way of boosting their self-esteem. Sometimes the media covers “doomsday believers” who say they know exactly when the world will end. What better way to get free publicity than to promote oneself by distorting the power of God’s will?

Rebelling against God, we all try to guide our lives with our own hands. Many times that seems to work perfectly. However, in God’s eyes, our rebellion—no matter how small—is incorrigible. Our sin separates us from him causing the wounds of sin to decay. And yet — we have an abiding hope found in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Still, we rebel. We take a “hum ho” approach toward our rebellion and sin. Thinking our rebellion won’t matter—because we’re saved—is like slapping God about his face and leaving him with handprints of sorrow. Shouldn’t we be responding to God’s love with love?

Until next time…

Nominal Religion: Religiosity

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When I think of religious excess, I call it religiosity. Some hypocrites, pious and judgmental people suffer from religiosity. Pointing fingers, they talk about people whose values don’t fit theirs. Their motivations aren’t always pure, and their political agenda is usually far to the right. A hypocrite preaches one thing and does another. Self-righteous and obsessed with looking virtuous, pious, and judgmental people don’t usually sit at the table of reason and reality. Nevertheless, we all carry the religiosity banner at one time or another.

So although we are living in our own historical time and place, just as Jesus spoke to the Pharisees, he also spoke to us: “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds” (Matthew 23:27-28, The Message).

The term “religiosity” applies to people who shift their faith away from God in favor of religion. Driven by individual beliefs, many focus on religious acts, while God takes a subordinate role in the person’s life, which is the opposite of what God wants from us. He wants us to follow him, not promote religion – to engage in a new life, not a new religion.

In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer questioned human religiosity as a point of contact for the gospel. After reading Bonhoeffer’s views, I concluded that our point of contact for the gospel is the God-man Jesus Christ who lived among us and suffered at the hands of those people whose claims to religion were false.

Do we want our faith to be about religious rules and rituals, human ideology, and self-appointed beliefs? Or would we prefer to immerse ourselves in a life-giving relationship with our creator who changes us and makes us new? Baptism, being a good person and citizen, obeying the law, and sharing our resources with the poor do not make a relationship with the living God. When we make a decision for God, we don’t just become a Christian—we become a child of God.

Until next time…

Nominal Religion: Extremism is Nothing New

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As a visitor on The Today Show, the violinist Isaac Stern spoke about his good friend, Irving Berlin shortly after Berlin passed away. Talking about the songwriter’s philosophy of life, Stern described it as simplistic, comprised of three existential phrases: life and death, loneliness and love, hope and defeat. At first glance, we might see two opposite lives, best described as either savory or bitter. One or the other. However, our lives are complex and filled with conflicting experiences, emotions, and uncertainty. So I question Stern’s assessment of Berlin’s supposed outlook on life. Perceptions about life—our own or another’s—depend greatly on our view of ourselves, culture and its changes, the world, and subsequent consequences.

From the moment we are born, we snuggle into our mother’s breast as she feeds us. Feeling the warmth and comfort of human connection, we want it to last forever. However, once we reach adulthood, life can be either satisfying or a mundane existence for some, while others long for more than the world can give. Our everyday existence has periods of loneliness and defeat, no matter who we are. Illness, divorce, loss of a loved one, financial stress, and distrust of the government take their toll. Nevertheless, and in spite of what we may think—these hardships are nothing new.

In some ways, the events in the evolution of Christianity, such as violence, tyranny, and ignorance to the teachings of Christ are similar to today’s woes. In ancient times, extremism over differing opinions about interpretations of the Bible brought chaos into a graceless society. Furthermore, there were times when Christian scholars’ suffered from ridicule, and in some cases, lost their lives. So as we look at the disconnect between nominal religion and authentic faith, let’s not forget what we’ve learned about Christian history, ourselves, human nature, and the world around us.

Until next time…

 

God’s Attribute of Will

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God’s will determines and causes certain activities and actions, in accordance with and for the benefit of humanity and his purposes. God created us according to his will, for his pleasure, for his purposes, and for eternity. Therefore, when our circumstances change, positively or adversely, we can faithfully abide in whatever comes our way, because we know from God’s other attributes, that his will knows truthfully what is best for us and what he has purposed for us to accomplish. By looking at God’s will as a constant and eternal tool—we evaluate ourselves through the eyes of God—and we let him use us within the context of the world, and all its problems.

Jesus’ brother James encourages us to see all the events of our lives as subject to God’s will. In his letter to first-century Jewish Christians, he wrote, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ To those who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain,’ James says, ‘You do not know about tomorrow… Instead you ought to say, ‘if the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that'” (James 4:13-15).

How many times do we make plans for the future, only to have them disintegrate before our eyes? God’s will doesn’t lead us astray, but don’t get the wrong idea. For example, someone might say, “Well it’s up to God, so I will wait on him to send me a job.” This is silly and shortsighted. God expects us to be active in his will for us. A job doesn’t materialize from God’s will—we have to apply for a job.

Further, in our response to tragic events, such as 911, we should not say, “Well … it must have been God’s will for that to happen.” The blame for the tragic events of 911 does not fall on God or God’s will—these increasing random acts of violence are the result of sin.

God’s will, like everything else about him, is a bit more complex than what we think. It constitutes a “variety of wills” all rolled in to one. For example, God’s necessary will evolves from and includes all that he must cause according to his nature—while his free will has no such prerequisite obligations. He chooses according to his pleasure and purposes. In addition to necessary and free will, God also has secret will and revealed will.

Think about the times you will yourself to do something, such as get more exercise, or quit smoking—but choose not to tell anyone beforehand. Or you may will yourself to further your education or search for a different job and tell your family and friends. Knowing that these examples aren’t consistent with God’s secret and revealed will, they do help us understand.

Furthermore, Scripture speaks to God’s secret and revealed wills. For example, in Deuteronomy 29:29 we read, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” From this passage, we glean two things: (1) God has every right to keep secret whatever he chooses to keep secret, and (2) God is sympathetic to our need for guidance. Therefore, he reveals those things needed to live within his will.

It’s not so surprising that God’s will is comprised of many different aspects. On the other hand, in spite of his complexities, he presents us with straightforward guidance in the Bible, and we respond through our faith.

Until next time…

God’s Summary Attributes

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We’ve learned that all of God’s attributes adjust to and assist one another. However, there are some attributes that are classified as “summary attributes,” because they don’t fit well into the other categories

Accordingly, God’s attributes of perfection, blessedness, beauty, and glory, fall into the category of “summary” attributes, because they celebrate all of what God is, and are enfolded into the other attributes at all times. In other words, when God employs his wisdom, goodness, or any other of his attributes, an infusion of the summary attributes takes place, making all of God’s character reflect perfection, blessedness, beauty, and glory.

As we turn the page on God’s attributes, I would like us to look doctrine as it pertains to God’s three O’s, as defined by Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology:

  • doctrine: What the whole Bible teaches us today about some particular topic:
  • omnipotence: The doctrine that God is able to do all his holy will (from Latin omni, ‘all,’ and potens, ‘powerful’).
  • omnipresence: The doctrine that God does not have size or spatial dimensions   and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places.
  • omniscience: The doctrine that God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act. [i]

As you can readily see, the above observations about God’s attributes align with and accommodate the doctrine of the three O’s.

In summary, we must remember that God’s attributes work in concert with another, but sometimes as one or two instruments in a fine tuned orchestra. Therefore, we should never explore one attribute without the other, because that would diminish how truly fine and brilliant God is.

Until next time…

[i] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994)

God’s Moral Attributes

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Our sickness of sin separates us from God. Therefore, God’s penal code—spiritual death—speaks to his absolute moral holiness. God cannot tolerate sin. Divorced from sin, God’s holiness exists within him while he persists in seeking and finding his own esteem.

In the Jewish tradition, the word holy describes the tabernacle—a place removed from the evil and sin of the world—no one could enter except for priests. After being consecrated, priests entered the first room in the tabernacle, known as “the holy place.” Only the high priest entered the “most holy place,” the second room in the tabernacle. Separating the two rooms was a curtain, known as the screening veil.

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest parted the screening veil, and entered the most holy place, offering blood for his and the people’s sins. So rigid and resolute was the statute—a piece of rope secured to the high priest’s ankle would enable the other priests to remove the high priest in the case of his death—without entering the holy of holies (most holy place).

But Christians can enter the most holy place, through the blood of Jesus Christ, our high priest. Without Jesus, the Christian would have no faith.

The reason?

In Hebrews 9:11-12 we read, “…when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.

Thus, the new covenant prophesied by Isaiah, “Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you, according to the faithful mercies shown to  David” (Isa. 55:3) came to fruition.

In addition, the consummate Jew, Saul of Tarsus, who after his conversion had become God’s messenger to the Gentiles, wrote the following while on his first missionary journey:

“As for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no longer to return to decay, He has spoken in this way: ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’” (Acts 13:34)

Here we see Old Testament prophecy coming to life and flowing through to the New Testament, which points to the historic unity of the Bible. As we read and study the Bible from beginning to end, we cannot escape the common thread of God’s holiness.

As the holiness of God is one of his moral attributes, his goodness, love, mercy, grace, patience, peace and order, righteousness and justice, jealousy, and wrath further define his virtue and moral code. Each of these distinguishes the God of Christianity in ways that show his worthiness—his favor shown toward undeserving humanity—his ability to order the universe judiciously and peacefully—his righteous and ongoing activity on our behalf—his jealous love and protection—and his wrath against all sin and rebellion that obstruct these stated moral attributes.

Until next time…