Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Faith and Obedience; Obedience and Faith

“The idea of a situation in which faith is possible is only a way of stating the facts of a case in which the following two propositions hold good and are equally true: only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.

"It is quite unbiblical to hold the first proposition without the second. We think we understand when we hear that obedience is possible only where there is faith. Does not obedience follow faith as good fruit grows on a good tree? First faith, then obedience. If by that we mean that it is faith which justifies, and not the act of obedience, all well and good, for that is the essential and unexceptionable presupposition of all that follows. If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other – and then we get the practical question, when must obedience begin?...From the point of view of justification it is necessary to separate them, but we must never lose sight of their essential unity. For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” [The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer, page 69.]

Jesus says (John 14:23 – 24), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word…He who does not love Me does not keep My words.”

The Apostle John writes, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments,” (1 John 2:3). “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith,” (1 John 5:3-4).

Belief that is not married to obedience is abstract and unconsummated; obedience is the child of faith as faith is the child of obedience. Put another way, when faith and obedience are married their offspring is a new person in Jesus Christ. The object of faith is Christ, the object of obedience is Christ – Christ and Christ alone must be the object, the center, the initiator and the consummator…He is the Alpha and Omega, the Author and Finisher.

Do we insist on obedience as we insist on faith? Or do we insist on faith while overlooking disobedience?  Why is it that we often look the other way when it comes to disobedience?

Preaching faith without obedience is disobedience to the Great Commission in which Jesus tells us to make disciples and to teach those disciples to obey all that He has commanded. A church that does not emphasize obedience to Jesus Christ is a church that typically looks like the world, it is indistinguishable from its surroundings.

Jesus calls us to know the fellowship of His obedience to the Father. This obedience is not limited to individual obedience, that is, it is not something that is limited to me personally; it is also something that I can experience in concert with my brothers and sisters and with the saints who have gone before me. This communal obedience echoes the Lord’s Table and resounds with the music of Hebrews Chapters 11 and 12 – it is an obedience anchored both in time (present circumstances) and in eternity. It is an obedience that is rooted and grounded in Golgotha, that finds its power on Easter morning, its assurance at the right hand of God, and its present reality in the Holy Spirit and the living Word of God.

Obedience to Jesus Christ is an invitation to know Him and to know others. I can only know the sweet fellowship of obedient saints as obedience becomes a way of life to me – it is a fellowship rooted in the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ – only those who live in the Cross can know others who live in the Cross, for they recognize a life that is not their own, they recognize the life of Another. The New Testament teaches us that those who don’t know Jesus don’t know His disciples, and His disciples are not those who form an abstract belief, but those who have the marriage of faith and obedience animating their lives in Christ.

We may talk about what we believe, but do we talk about how we live? Church websites may have a page describing beliefs (though these pages are becoming more and more simple and indefinite), but do they have a page describing how congregations live? Those who join churches are often asked to simply give assent to beliefs, they are not required to make a commitment to how they will live.

Have we lost the vision and joy of obedient fellowship with Jesus and others? Jesus calls us to obedience because He calls us to Himself. He calls us to obedience because He desires that we know Him and our Father and experience the power and intimacy of the Holy Spirit. Consider the place “obedience” has in Jesus’ Upper Room teaching which He gave the night He was betrayed – the Upper Room is an invitation into the Holy of Holies, and that invitation includes the way of obedience. Jesus was obedient to the Father, He calls us to that very same obedience…our obedience should be no less than His as He lives within us.

Will today be a day of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ?


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Not An Abstract Doctrine

“If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps…Levi must leave his receipt of custom and Peter his nets to follow Jesus. One would have thought that nothing so drastic was necessary at such an early stage. Could not Jesus have initiated the publican into some new religious experience, and leave them as they were before? He could have done so had He not been the incarnate Son of God. But since he is the Christ, he must make it clear from the start that his word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole man. The only right and proper way is to literally go with Jesus. The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God.

“The first step places the disciple in the situation where faith is possible. If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe. He who is called must go out of his situation in which he cannot believe, into the situation in which, first and foremost, faith is possible.” [Italics added]. [The Cost of Discipleship, pages 66 – 67].

The latter part of this chapter, The Call to Discipleship, focuses on the interplay of obedience and faith, and faith and obedience. This is a strange chapter to read in 2014, strange because the call of Jesus Christ to obedient discipleship (is there any other kind?) is something seldom heard and written about. We are more apt to hear writers and preachers call us to abstract doctrines or ways of thinking than we are to hear them call us to the person of Jesus Christ. We also hear well-meaning folks call us to a relationship with the Bible instead of calling us to Jesus Christ – the One to whom the Bible gives testimony. And then there are yet other well-meaning brothers and sisters who are evangelists for certain worldviews, with those world-views taking the (no doubt unintended) place of Jesus Christ. I may know doctrine and not know Jesus, I may know the Bible (in the sense of data or basic content) and not know Jesus, and I may vigorously hold a “Christian” worldview and not know Jesus. The only discipleship which matters is being a disciple of Jesus Christ, following Him in obedience to His call and command.

Adherence to doctrine, to Biblical knowledge (in the sense I’m using the term), and a Christian worldview does not call me out of where I am into a situation where I can have faith; only obedience to Jesus Christ introduces me to the new creation and leads me into the path of re-creation in Him. As Bonhoeffer explores in this chapter, obedience produces faith and faith produces obedience – faith without obedience is not faith.

Apart from altar calls in some traditions, how often do we hear clear calls to obedience? How often do we hear calls to follow Jesus? I have seldom heard them; seldom have I heard an appeal to follow Jesus. I wonder how often I’ve sounded that call? I wonder how often I’ve advocated an abstract doctrine or a worldview or even a knowledge of the Bible instead of issuing a clear call to follow Jesus? And as for altar calls, other than the clear calls of Billy Graham, how often have they been centered on following Jesus as opposed to functioning as a catharsis?

If we have not been changed have we had faith? If we have not been obedient to Jesus have we had faith? Obedience and faith are a marriage in the soul which leads to fellowship with Jesus and transformation into His image. Jesus’ food was to do the will of the Father – what is our food?

I think we’re too often living in the abstract, abstract doctrine with feel-good religious services; we initiate others into religious experiences rather than issue a clear call to follow Jesus Christ.

We don’t need a Christian culture in our churches, we need a culture of Jesus; Jesus is to be the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last – our everything. Our love, our life, our heart, our mind, is to be centered on our Lord Jesus and our obedience and worship are to be unreservedly and passionately offered to Him.

Is Jesus an abstract idea or doctrine to us? Or is Jesus Christ our friend, our Lord and our God whom we follow and live for in obedient faith?

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Stupid Question

“And as He passed by He saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the place of custom, and he said to him, Follow Me. And he arose and followed him.” (Mark 2:14).

“The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling-block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events. By hook or by crook a bridge must be found between some psychological or historical event. Thus we get the stupid question: Surely the publican [Levi] must have known Jesus before, and that previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call…

“It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus…Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word…We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road – only obedience to the call of Jesus.” [Pages 61 – 62 – The Cost of Discipleship].

“It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking through every program, every ideal, every set of laws…When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person.” [Page 63, italics added].

I’m not sure that it is a stupid question, though I can see myself using the term in frustration and perhaps Bonhoeffer used it thusly. What is it we don’t get about Jesus Christ having the Presence and Power and Authority to command obedience? Perhaps it is because we do not view Him as such today? Perhaps it is because our vision is relegated to programs and ideals and laws and traditions and marketing ploys? Perhaps we have become too religiously Christian for Jesus?

Perhaps we have become too reasonable for Jesus? After all, we are prone to apologize for Him by assuring congregants and seekers that Jesus most assuredly won’t require the same measure of denial and obedience seen in the Bible and often in history. Jesus certainly won’t command us to do things that might be misunderstood by family, friends, and society.

Perhaps we’ve so convinced ourselves that building relationships is the only way to share the Gospel and commands of Jesus Christ that we’ve also convinced ourselves that that is exactly the way He lived on earth. (This is not a knock on building relationships; it is a challenge to using this thinking as a smoke screen and excuse for not sharing the Gospel).

But perhaps the most telling reason we find it difficult to conceive of Levi or Peter or John or Philip or any number of others down through the centuries leaving their way of life to follow Jesus is that they had an exclusive attachment to his person and we do not. To us Jesus is one option among many, to us in the church He is often more figurehead than Lord; He is a spiritual consultant; a therapist, He is many things…but He often is not Lord – He does not evoke an exclusive attachment to his person. We don’t act like He does, we don’t talk like He does, we don’t make decisions within the church like He does. He may sit unseen around a table in a church board meeting but He does not occupy a throne as Lord and King and we do not fall on our faces before Him in absolute worship and obeisance.

I don’t think it is a stupid question; we may have stupid responses to the question if those responses ignore the inherent tension of the great chasm between Levi’s immediate obedience to Jesus and our own. Our responses, if we are pastors, professors, leaders, parents, may go beyond stupid to irresponsible if we ignore the force of the Gospel, if we explain away the call of Jesus Christ, if we excuse disobedience, if we apologize for Jesus.

A measure of fruitful ministry is whether those whom we serve have an exclusive attachment to Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1ff); the benchmark of the Biblical Gospel is an insistence on this exclusive attachment – Jesus Christ is Biblical Christianity and Biblical Christianity is Jesus Christ.

Consider that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory,” the glory of Jesus is the glory of God and the glory of God is Jesus Christ – in Him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells – mystery of mysteries – glory of glories. The same God who hid Moses in the cleft of a rock so as to protect him from the radiance of His glory is the God who called Levi – is it any wonder Levi immediately responded? Is this the Jesus we portray today in our preaching and teaching and witnessing? God came to earth – He continues to come to earth by His Spirit in His people and through His Word. Jesus calls us to Himself and in so doing calls us out of the world system, calls us out of the world’s way of doing and thinking, calls us out of the darkness that blinds the hearts and minds of men and women – we are not of the world anymore than Jesus is of the world (John 17), and yet we are to go into all the world (Matthew 28, John 20) in order to call others out of the world to Jesus…making disciples and teaching them to do all that Jesus has commanded us.

When Jesus comes to us today will we arise and follow Him?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Psalm 35

“But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer kept returning to my bosom. I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning as one who sorrows for a mother,” Psalm 35:13 – 14.

These words, in the midst of an imprecatory psalm, have challenged me more than once. On the one hand they are incongruous, two verses out of twenty-eight, most of which follow the pattern of, “Let destruction come upon him unawares, and let the net which he hid catch himself; into that very destruction let him fall (verse 8).

Thoughtful people struggle with the imprecatory psalms, they seen to go against the Beatitudes and run contrary to, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” How do we interact with these psalms?

I recently heard a professor suggest that the imprecatory psalms are directed toward those who are opposed to God and His people; while this may be true regarding opposition to God if we extend opposition to a godly person as de facto opposition to God; and while it may be true if we extend opposition to a godly person as de facto opposition to the people of God – I am still left with the sense that it is not that simple and with the concern that I may be stretching things in order to arrive at a comfortable approach to imprecatory language.

Psalm 35 begins with, “Contend, O Yahweh, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.” The language of this psalm is focused on the individual and not the people of God – the psalmist is crying out for vindication and judgment in response to how he has been treated, he is not crying out on behalf of the people of God.

My rule, which I have learned from Paul and others, is that when the people of God are harmed that I cry out for vindication and protection; but that when I am harmed that I simply say to the effect, “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil, the Lord will repay him according to his deeds,” (2 Timothy 4:14).

I am challenged with: “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer kept returning to my bosom. I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning as one who sorrows for a mother,” Psalm 35:13 – 14. I fall woefully short of this, even when dealing with things that are, from an eternal perspective, trivial. If I allow trivial matters to harden my heart toward others, how much more do I fall short when confronting weighty matters?

Perhaps after years of living in these verses things came to a head with the psalmist and he entered into another season of life, another dynamic in his relations with those who had long sought to destroy him? I don’t know.

What I do know is that when I tread on the imprecatory psalms that I must walk carefully lest I think I know more than I do, lest I think I see license to not seek the very best for others, lest I see excuses for my own uncharitable behavior and attitude. As far as I can tell, only God knows the circumstances and the heart of the psalmist, and so another thing I must be wary of is superimposing my own comfortable life experience on literature that was likely written in very different circumstances, circumstances for which I do not have a sure and certain historical context.

While we do not fight against flesh and blood (Ephesians Chapter 6), evil has its incarnations and who among us in comfortable and affluent societies really know what it is to confront the incarnational evil of a Hitler and his henchmen? Incarnational evil is present with us, both in an obvious sense (think for example genocide) and in a subtle and subversive sense (think the dismantling of the image of God by humanism). The imprecatory psalms remind me that evil is real and present and that it has human agents.

Psalm 35 is a psalm of tension, of unanswered questions, of ponderings; it is also a psalm that draws me into communion with my God as I seek to better know Him and understand His ways. Following Jesus Christ is a daily experience, knowing God is a pilgrimage. Psalm 35 lets me know, among other things, that there is much that I do not know while drawing me into a deeper trust in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Psalm 34

“This poor man cried, and Yahweh heard him and saved him out of all his troubles…The righteous cry, and Yahweh hears and delivers them out of all their troubles,” Psalm 34:7, 14.

In verse 4 David writes, “I sought Yahweh, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

This Psalm is a good place to live; its crescendo is Messianic (vv. 19 – 21), “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but Yahweh delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken [see John 19:31-36]. Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.”

Our concluding assurance is (v.22) that, “Yahweh redeems the soul of His servants, and none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned,” this is a good place to live.

Knowing that there is only One who is Righteous, I can only read about the righteous in two ways, as either direct references to God or as references to those who abide in God as their righteousness – the context determines how I read the word “righteous”, sometimes it is one, sometimes it is the other, at other times it is both – they can be inseparable. As a friend recently said to his congregation, “It is important to know who we are not and it is important to know who we are.”

“This poor man cried and Yahweh heard him…” I think this is a good word for a tombstone. As a young man I would not have understood that, I didn’t think of myself as poor, I didn’t think of myself as particularly needing God; I had joined the Christian bandwagon, I’d found a new sport to play, I’d exchanged baseball for Jesus and church. This isn’t to say that my conversion wasn’t real, you had only to know me before and after to know that I had been changed – it is simply to say that it was shallow, I had not been weaned from an overriding self-centeredness.

A Christian observer may have thought that I was progressing nicely in the Christian life – I was learning the Bible, devouring it you might say – but devouring the Bible is not the same as being devoured by the Word. I shared the Gospel on a regular basis, witnessing became part of the fabric of my life; I preached my first sermon when I was 16, it wasn’t particularly good, in fact I think it was pretty bad, but then maybe no one noticed? Well, actually I did notice. But while I was doing a lot of Christian “things” I wouldn’t have resonated with, “This poor man cried and Yahweh heard him.” I was too full of myself.

Now, after almost five decades of knowing Jesus, I can look back and see that when the harsh realities of life hit me there and there and there, that as I realized my poverty before God (and even before man), that when I cried to our Father and the Lord Jesus that they heard me and delivered me from all my troubles. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that my troubles in each instance simply vanished, but I am saying that God delivered my heart and soul and mind from the troubles by drawing me close to Himself and making me aware of His presence and giving me assurance through His Word. Yes, there have been times when the troubles were taken away, sometimes more quickly than others; and sometimes I was taken away from the troubles – such is the nature of our pilgrimage.

I am much poorer today than I was as an arrogant young Christian without guidance and common sense, playing the Christian game matters much less than it did (I can’t say it’s all gone, only God knows me well enough to make that judgment) and knowing Jesus and serving others means so very much more. I do know that when this poor man cries that his Father and Lord Jesus hear him, I know I’m not speaking into a void, I know my words, my cries, my joys, my sorrows, are transported into the heart of God – I don’t understand these things, I cannot explain them – but I know them.

This Psalm is a good place to live.