Lent and Repentance in the Spiritual Life

A Historical Look at the Season of Lent

On Wednesday, we entered the 40-day journey toward Easter weekend. This period has historically been referred to as Lent. Earle E. Cairns in Christianity through the Centuries writes about the origin of the Lenten season,

The emergence of a cycle of feasts in the church year may be noted in this era (100–313 A.D.). Easter, originating in the application of the Jewish Passover to the resurrection of Christ, seems to have been the earliest of the festivals. Not until after 350 was Christmas adopted in the West as a Christian festival and purged of its pagan elements. Lent, a forty-day period of penitence and restraint on bodily appetites preceding Easter, had been accepted earlier as a part of the churches’ cycle of worship before the adoption of Christmas (116, parentheses mine).

In Devotions for Lent from the Mosaic Study Bible (https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/105-devotions-for-lent-from-holy-bible-mosaic), the Introduction provides us with both the aim and the fit of Lent into the rhythm of the Christian annual calendar,

Lent is the season when Christians have historically prepared their hearts for Easter with reflection, repentance, and prayer. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and proceeds for forty days, culminating in Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Since Sundays are weekly celebrations of the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays in Lent are not counted as part of the forty-day season. Many Christians choose to fast throughout the season of Lent, but the focus is not so much on depriving themselves of something as it is on devoting themselves to God and his purposes in the world.

Here is a look at the Christian calendar and Lent’s place in the mix:

2015–2016 Christian Calendar

Seasons Beginning Dates Purpose
Advent November 29, 2015 Focuses on the anticipation of God’s coming into the world, both in the incarnation and at Christ’s 2nd coming
Christmas December 25th, 2015 Concentrates on the birth of Christ
Epiphany January 6th, 2016 Centers itself in the light of God’s presence shining in the world
Lent February 10, 2016 Directs our attention toward human mortality, sin, and God’s gracious solution in Christ
Easter March 27, 2016 Celebrates resurrection life in Christ
Ascension May 5th, 2016 Turns attention to the benefits toward the believer because of Christ’s ascension to the Father
Pentecost May 15th, 2016 Helps us to remember and participate in the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in the world

There are times in the history of the church, particularly during the Middle Ages, that the seasons of the Christian calendar have served to restrain or even abuse real spiritual growth. A Young Calvinist blogger named Justin Smidstra notes,

Many of us may not have paid much attention to this, since the church year and the “liturgical seasons” do not play a very large role in the Reformed churches and many other Protestant churches as well. There are some historic and sound reasons for this. During the middle ages the observance of Lent became an excessive practice, which emphasized works righteousness, and came to be associated with all sorts of superstitious beliefs. The Reformers condemned these abuses and for this reason rejected most of the Lenten practices of their day, such as the mandatory forty day fast. We do not dispute their wisdom in this.

Certainly the Puritan in us shouts, “Lent is everyday. Easter is everyday. Incarnation is everyday. We do not need a seasonal calendar; rather we preach the full gospel to ourselves and others daily.”

So, what do we do with Lent and the rest of the seasons? To practice, or not to practice? I personally think there is a balance that can be found. The benefits of the Christian calendar are its organization, its simplicity, and its strict focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ. The dangers of the Christian calendar are those about which the early Reformers warn—developing a mindset that grace from God is somehow gained or missed depending on my faithfulness to the calendar or superstitious beliefs becoming attached to the practice. However, the former can be remedied by faithful teaching about saving grace coming to us through Christ’s faithful work alone. The latter problem of superstition has always been a problem the church has faced. As early as the days of the papyrus copies of the New Testament, we have evidence that Christians would copy for themselves a portion of the Gospels or Acts where healing, miracles, or great power was demonstrated by Jesus or the apostles. They would “roll it up” and keep it with them as an amulet, which they believed would keep them free from sickness, demons, and other dangers. The cure for superstition isn’t necessarily an avoidance of the Calendar, nor an avoidance of the Scriptures, but rather quality discipleship in the truths and doctrines of Scripture for the Christian life.

I have participated in Lent some years and not other years. There is no law or command in Scripture that demands such participation. In fact, Paul writes in Colossians 2:16–17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” That is to say, all festivals, special days, and spiritual disciplines with food and drink find their substance in Christ. He is the fulfillment of all these things, the end of them if you will. Therefore, the Puritans and Reformers have a point. However, I would say that Paul is not condemning the practice of festivals and the like, rather he is saying that we should not pass judgment on one another or from one church to another regarding these things. Brothers and sisters, we are free to gather and worship Christ in all the fullness of truth and love that we can muster by the Spirit’s help. Calendar or no calendar.

Lent Reminds Us to Practice Repentance and Repentance Is Good

Wherever you find yourself traditionally this Lenten season, I hope you will embrace a regular practice of repentance. It is good to question the appetites of the sinful flesh and to bring them under the control of the Spirit, be it through fasting, prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, silence, or solitude. Romans 6:11 teaches us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” As you practice the “mortification of your sins” in Christ’s death, also remember the hope and life and power we have because Christ has risen from the dead. For we need not only confession and repentance, but resurrection power to break the chains of slavery that sin has had over us.

Allow me to point you to two places in Scripture that can guide you in the development of regular rhythms of repentance. Let me also call attention to this. It is very appropriate to seek both community repentance and personal repentance from God. For example, our nation needs the gift of repentance from God. The churches in our nation need the gift of repentance from God—both for past sins of commission and omission and for present sins. For this community-approach toward repentance, I turn to Daniel 9:1–23. I have broken down this passage on repentance into 7 parts:

  • The Provocation to Repentance (vv.1–2) — The word of God provokes repentance as it reveals truth and grace to us.
  • The Posture of Repentance (v. 3) — Genuine repentance seems to be marked by common postures: prayer, fasting, lament (sackcloth and ashes), pleas for mercy.
  • The Confession of Repentance (vv. 4–6) — The confession acknowledges God’s faithfulness and love while it also agrees with God about our sinful deeds and our unwillingness to listen to his word. Notice the community and personal aspects in Daniel’s use of the personal plural pronouns.
  • The Humility of Repentance (vv. 7–12) — Humility is honest. It lacks prideful attempts to justify. Daniel humbly admits his and the people’s need for the righteousness, mercy, and forgiveness that belong to the Lord and admits their ownership of the shame they have brought on themselves.
  • The Resistance to Repentance (vv. 13–15) — While this continues Daniel’s humility, it is specifically highlighting their resistance to “entreat the favor of the Lord.” There is a fight that must take place within repentance. We must fight against resistance and submission to it.
  • The Petition of Repentance (vv. 16–19) — Here Daniel finds what we must all find in the process of repentance—a petition based in the will of God for his own glory. Repentance happens when we truly desire God’s will above our own. In the New Testament, we call this dying to self and coming alive unto God. Notice how many times Daniel uses the pronoun “your.” In a quick look in my ESV Bible, I counted 16. He recognizes that God is both the source of the chastisement and the source of their healing.
  • The Answer to Repentance (vv. 20–23) — Remember, Daniel started praying because of a prophecy of Jeremiah that provoked him (v. 2). God answers Daniel’s repentance with further insight and revelation into his plan and will. Notice that Daniel’s prayer was heard from the very beginning (v. 23). The answer confirmed God’s love for him, and brought him further understanding.

The second place in Scripture to which I direct you is the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13; cf. Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Jesus’ forty days and forty nights of fasting and facing the Tempter is typically thought to be the foundation for the 40-day period of Lent. Consider the opportunities for repentance based upon Jesus’ faithfulness:

  • Opportunity #1: Is the Word of God Sufficient to Me (Mt. 4:1–4)?
  • Opportunity #2: Do I Fear God in Such a Way That Avoids Presumptuous Testing of God in My Decision Making (Mt. 4:5–7)?
  • Opportunity #3: Do I Worship God with Submissive Service to His Plan for My Life (Mt. 4:8–11)?

I hope that this has challenged you to feel the necessity of a regular rhythm and seeking of repentance. Repentance is a treasure and a gift from God. May this treasure be yours and mine today and in the days ahead.

In Christ,

Pastor Rex

Receive and Pass On the Resurrection Creed

West Lisbon Church Pastoral Insights and Blog Posts

In 1 Corinthians 15:3–5, we have what is perhaps the earliest, formal claim for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3–5 ESV).

It is most likely that this creed is not originally Paul’s, but a creed that predates him and his writing of 1 Corinthians. Paul states that he received this. Galatians 1:11–12, 17 is relevant to Paul’s reception of the gospel of Jesus Christ too. We know that he received a special kind of instruction in the gospel from Jesus himself; however, it is also clear that eventually he did spend time with the apostles in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18). Regardless, whether he received this creedal form from the Lord Jesus himself or from his only slightly later association with the Christian community, the gospel articulated in the creedal form of 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is early. According to Darrell Bock’s landmark commentary on the Book of Acts, Paul’s conversion experience, which is recorded in Acts 9, most likely occurred sometime one to three years following the death of Jesus. The composition of 1 Corinthians dates back to 54 A.D. Therefore, if the letter itself dates to 54 and if the creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 precedes Paul and his letter, then we are looking at an extremely early creed probably produced within the year of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. This is not hard to imagine as it would have made sense for the early Christians to formalize an oral creed concerning the bodily resurrection of Christ and pass it around as they met in the temple and from house to house (Acts 5:42). I’ll concede that it could be that Paul received this as late as the mid-forties due to the record of his interaction with the apostles in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the content in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is a very early creedal form of the gospel of Jesus Christ probably passed on orally at first and then eventually making it into the literature of the church.

A creed serves to summarize truth in a compact and memorable way so that they could be committed to memory and easily recited. They helped in a day when most people did not have a copy of the Scriptures and even if they did, they may not have been able to read it. A creed was accessible to everyone. The “pass it on” nature is emphasized by Paul when he speaks of receiving it and delivering it in verse 3. Also, repetition for memory’s sake is observed with the word “that” as well as “according to the Scriptures.”

Peter’s independent mention in verse 5 (i.e., Cephas is also known as Peter) is one feature that has been given attention by the commentators. It could have either a restorative nuance (cf. John 21:15–19) or possibly an emphatic nuance on his leadership among The Twelve (cf. Matt. 16:13–19; Acts 2:14–41). Peter is recognized as “a leader among the leaders” with regard to the apostles in the NT. It isn’t at all odd that the creed mentions him separately. Luke 24:34 also affirms what appears to be an independent appearance to Simon Peter.

A word search in the Greek New Testament reveals that ”The Twelve” appears 36 times, almost always referring to “The Twelve” apostles. When referring to the apostles, this is a formal title. Even after Judas dies and is replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:26), “The Twelve” is still used in Acts 6:2 and Rev. 21:14. It is clear from context that Matthias meets the criteria employed to replace Judas,

Thus one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, beginning from his baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us.” So they proposed two candidates: Joseph called Barsabbas (also called Justus) and Matthias (Acts 1:21–23 NET).

Paul’s use of “The Twelve” in the creed that he had received is not inaccurate. If anything, it suggests that perhaps the creed was created after Matthias was selected. It also is not inaccurate because “The Twelve” including Matthias were all eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ.

I’ll concede that the mention of the apostles again in verse 7 seems to be redundant, but redundancy does not an error make. There are optional, reasonable explanations without assuming error. For example, the word “apostle” means “sent one” in its informal meaning. Some readers of Scripture may apply this to someone like Barnabas, who doesn’t appear to be a Jerusalem Elder, neither was he one of The Twelve, but he certainly was a “sent one” (cf. Acts 9:26–30; 11:19–26). Perhaps, the creed is simply being redundant or making reference to the multiple appearances to this group. Again, redundancy does not an error make.

The absence in verses 5–7 of any mention of the women to whom the risen Christ appeared is an interesting feature to the modern reader. Much ink has been spilled on this. Scholarly circles refer to the Gospel record of women being the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and to the resurrected Jesus as a “criteria of authenticity” because of the embarrassing nature of such witnesses in the first century world. Luke points this out in 24:11, “but these words [of the women] seemed to them [the apostles] an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Women eyewitnesses were not considered trustworthy. If someone in the first century was seeking to invent a persuasive account of Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24 or John 20, there is no way such a made up story would list women as the first eyewitnesses. No one would take the story seriously. However, that’s exactly what we have in the Gospels. The writers are telling it just as it happened—embracing the embarrassment. Further, these weren’t the only appearances. There were multiple appearances as the creed records. The Gospel accounts are confirmed by the criteria of embarrassment, and the creed’s authenticity is confirmed by its emphasis on those who would have been considered the major eyewitnesses at that time.

One critic of the statement in verse 6 about the appearance to “more than five hundred brothers at one time” states,

We do not have five hundred separate, notarized accounts. What we have is one person, Paul, who says that five hundred anonymous people saw Jesus, giving no further details about their identities or the circumstances of the seeing. By itself, this is not strong evidence, just as it would not be strong evidence if I gave you a piece of paper that said, “One thousand people saw me do a miracle.”

To me, this represents the deep stubbornness of unbelief. Here’s why. We do have the account of Luke which states that the resurrected Jesus appeared for forty days following his suffering. This is plenty of time for the creed’s proposition to have been realistically accomplished. No, you do not have the written accounts of 500 people, but you have the written accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and really all of the NT authors are writing from the belief of a resurrected Christ, because there is no Christianity without a bodily, resurrected Christ. One wonders how many eyewitness accounts would be necessary in order to be convincing evidence . . .  would more records than we already have really persuade? If I was given a piece of paper that said 1000 people saw so-and-so perform a miracle, I would simply ask for the names of some of these people. This is exactly the type of inquiry Paul invites the Corinthians into when he mentions that most of these 500 are still living. This isn’t that hard, especially if the creed, as is likely, dates back to the 30’s A.D.

To suggest that the resurrected Jesus was to the early church merely a mythical figure, a figment of their own imaginations and hopes, couldn’t be more foreign to the records we have. It is a misrepresentation of the earliest records of the believers of Jesus Christ. They really believed him to have physically and historically resurrected. Had he not and if they still continued to desire to follow him after his death, it makes much more sense that they would have continued to proclaim him as returning at some point in the future as the redeemer of Israel from Roman oppression. But they are devastated by his death as the disciples on the road to Emmaus detail in Luke 24. They are returning home after the Passover pilgrimage. Everything is over for them until Christ appears to them—bodily resurrected. A person can continue to choose not to believe in the resurrection of Christ, but it is a bit disrespectful to suggest that what Paul, The Twelve, and the early Christians were really trying to say was that they wanted Jesus to be alive so badly that they imagined visions of such a reality. However, the clearer explanation and intention of these early Christians is that he really did raise from the dead, making multiple appearances for 40 days.

Rest from Your Quest to Rest

Labor for God

Rest is something for which we all seem to be searching. I don’t know any person who would say, “No thanks, I am perfectly rested in every possible way.” If you do happen to feel that way, maybe I need to have coffee with you to find your secret!

Rest is one of those all encompassing concepts. It speaks to the interconnectedness of our human nature. We are physical beings, emotional beings, volitional beings, intellectual beings, and spiritual beings. This is the “whole” of who we are as human beings. All of these parts are interconnected and affect one another. For example, even if my body is getting enough sleep, but I am emotionally tired or anxious, my body may suffer from the storm in my emotions.

I think all people seek rest—Christians and non-Christians alike. The late H. G. Wells, famed science fiction writer, is quoted as saying,

The time has come for me to reorganize my life, my peace—I cry out. I cannot adjust my life to secure any fruitful peace. Here I am at sixty-four, still seeking peace. It is a hopeless dream.

Wells speaks of peace, but I think we may say that in this instance, the peace for which he searches and the rest at topic in this article are the same.

As with all things of importance, we need to discover what God has graciously revealed to us about it. God speaks quite frequently and deeply about the idea. As with any spiritual challenge, we must come to understand God’s story as THE STORY behind all other stories. To surrender ourselves to his revelation in the Bible is to surrender to and to discover the truth.

What the Bible Has to Say about Sabbath & Rest

Allow me to give a very brief overview of the Bible on the topics of Sabbath and Rest. Afterwards, I’ll try to make some suggestions for resting from the quest to rest.

Genesis 2:1-3 gives the divine example (not a mandate) for a holy day of rest. It follows his finished work of creation. This divine example of resting from the God who needs no sleep nor slumber (Psalm 121:4) informs us for the rest of the story. First, rest isn’t an exact parallel to the physical act of sleeping. Rest may involve sleeping, but sleep doesn’t fill out the whole idea of rest. The Hebrew term means to cease, to stop, to rest, to celebrate. It seems to emphasize what happens once something—particularly work—has come to an end. Second, we must remember that Moses is writing Genesis as God reveals to him things from the dawn of creation and how those things should inform the life of the people of Israel. In Israel, the creation rest of God will be experienced by the people in the practice of the Sabbath. Third and very important, God created Sabbath, so the Sabbath isn’t bigger than God. Rather, Sabbath is subject to God’s will and mission. Lastly, this is just food for thought—is there any evidence that the patriarchs in Genesis ever practiced Sabbath-keeping? Did Adam practice it in the Garden? If so, how would such a practice have looked before the Mosaic law gave detailed laws and commands? How does the seventh day rest in the beginning instruct us about rest at the end when God makes all things new?

Exodus 20:8-11 and 31:17 establish the divine command for a holy day of rest into Israel’s weekly practice based upon the creation example where God rested and was refreshed. God designed and provided the law in order to make Israel a distinct people. Sabbath laws were a part of the peculiarity of Israel. The seventh day in Israel was marked by the cessation of regular work and “by religious and ceremonial observances” (Westerholm, 716). So, it was for rest and to be holy. It marked not only the completion of God’s own creative work, but also “a reminder of the relief God granted his people in delivering them from slavery in Egypt (Deut. 5:15)” (Westerholm, 716). This is an important advancement in a “theology of the Sabbath rest”—with the great exodus, Sabbath became identified not only with Creation, but also began to become identified with Redemption. This represents the substance behind all the practice. Of particular note, you can begin to see God’s heart in this. God’s heart for Israel seemed to be that they would trust him as Creator and Redeemer on the Sabbath, a trust that set them apart among the nations. This trust expressed itself in a regular cessation in vocation—what one typically associates as the key to livelihood and provision—and a turning toward worship and dependence upon the Creator and Redeemer, who had sovereignty over their livelihoods. God doesn’t like it when we declare our independence from him; the tower of Babel incident teaches us that much (Gen. 11:1–9).

The prophets reminded the people about the heart of the Sabbath and rebuked them for making it meaningless ritual. Isaiah 1:13 indicates that God hates rituals, even Sabbath, when divorced from genuine obedience and loyalty. So, Sabbath isn’t the main thing, even in the OT. Ezekiel 20:12 and other places emphasize that Sabbath is a means by which God accomplishes his end to make his people distinct in the world.

Entering the New Testament, Jesus made great efforts to recover the heart and spirit behind Sabbath, that had been lost due to suffocating traditions. The Gospels teach that (1) Jesus is Lord over the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–27), (2) Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–27), and (3) it is good to do good on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1–6). Luke 13:14-16 introduces a freedom aspect to the purpose of Sabbath. Here’s an interesting question to me, why wasn’t it God’s plan for Jesus to resurrect on the Sabbath, instead of the first day of the week, which would eventually and effectively change the day of worship? Is he moving away from a physical Sabbath day to a spiritual or eternal Sabbath in Christ?

Paul certainly seemed to think so. In Rom. 14, Gal. 4:10, and Col. 2:16, Paul seems to have really no concern for a Sabbath day, unless a (weaker) brother is being offended over such a matter. We may even say he’s critical of it.

Finally, the Sabbath rest of Hebrews 3-4 seems much more like the creation example than the example in the law of Israel. It seems bigger than a mere day. It’s God’s rest, kind of an ultimate cessation from labor and works. In 3:6, Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. From there, the readers are invited into God’s rest. Unbelief keeps us out of this rest (3:19), as it did for the exodus generation, but the inheritance now is not a land, but a person (3:14). So, the rest in Christ for now and forever (cf. Rev. 14:13) is entered into by faith (4:11).

Thus, this seems to be the pattern:

Creation Rest before the Fall—A completion of God’s Creation work
Commanded Rest after the Fall
Christ-centered Rest Free from the Law by the Spirit
Eternal Rest—A completion of God’s Redemptive work

Resting from Your Quest to Rest

I guess then the question begs, what is the practical outworking of finding God’s rest in Christ by faith to my daily life, vocation, and work week? Many “Sabbath practices” in conservative, evangelical Christianity come from the Puritan John Owens, who dealt extensively with the subject. While I like some of Owens’ ideas—particularly that since Sabbath means cessation, we ought to spend nearly the entire day (morning and evening services) in worship on Sunday as the church—I get a strong sense that he does not go far enough with the implications of a Christ-centered, New Testament revelation on Sabbath. He seems to mostly create a new set of laws and traditions to govern the external do’s and don’ts of Sabbath, extending beyond vocation even into recreational prohibitions. You didn’t know it, but John Owens is the reason that some of you as kids weren’t allowed to play on Sunday afternoons! From his ideas, I believe, come regulations like—we shouldn’t go out to eat on Sundays because that causes some stranger to work on Sunday. Although, it was perfectly ok for mother to work her tail off in the kitchen preparing and serving a huge Sunday dinner for the family gathering. . . . I digress.

I want to give you four timeless takeaways that I hope will help you to rest from your quest to rest. Here you go:

(1) Rest and laziness are not the same thing. “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him” (Prov. 10:26). And in the New Testament for good measure, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). To be lazy cannot be justified by the imperative to rest. On the other hand, to avoid rest is not justified by a fear of being perceived as lazy. I feel many of us wrestle with this. Throughout the story of the Bible, laziness is evil, and rest is good.
(2) Rest always exhibits faith and dependence on the Creator and Redeemer. Throughout the whole biblical story, rest is God’s idea—not your’s, not your employer’s, not your family’s. You should rest because you believe that God is your Creator and Savior. Rest is one thing that marks you as a believer, and it glorifies God.
(3) Rest these days should be Christ-centered and Spirit-Driven. I don’t think Sunday should be our day of rest because its the Sabbath because it isn’t. Saturday is the actual, physical Sabbath day according the Old Covenant. I think Sunday should be preferred by the Christian church as its day of rest, because it is the most Christ-centered day we could pick out of the seven! He resurrected on the first day of the week. This is why the early church in Acts began gathering on Sundays instead of Saturdays. With this, our faith and practice are Christ-centered, governing our choices at every level. Our rest should be driven by the Spirit, so that we are not entangled by obsolete laws, so that we understand rest as a gift rather than as something to enslave us, and so that we make sure we continue to do good on it, against which there is no law (Gal. 5:13–26). So, for example, it is Spirit-driven to love another on your day of rest.
(4) Rest in eternity marks the completion of God’s redemptive work and the fullness of our experience of God’s intended rest in Christ. God has an aim to redeem us body and soul—through a physical resurrection like Christ’s and through the new birth. His will is to make us whole, giving us rest in body, emotion, volition, intellect, and in spirit. He is doing this, and he will finish it in the new heaven and new earth. This is something to hope for. It is also something that informs us as we struggle to rest today.

The Way of Salvation

When asked about our first fight as a married couple, Aimee and I always recall the same event—the drive home from the airport after our honeymoon. We had spent a week in Florida for our honeymoon, and returned to the Columbus airport in Ohio. We hopped into our car, and for the very first time, we headed to our new apartment together. It was really our first drive home together. Aimee wasn’t headed to her parents’ home, and I wasn’t headed to mine.

I was driving. The problem, however, was that I had not driven in Columbus very much, and I really did not know where I was going. For my younger friends, this was during days prior to smartphones—how I would have dreamed to have had Siri speaking flawless directions into my earbud that day! I was lost in no time, and I was not interested in directions, especially from my new wife; I mean if I couldn’t get us out of Columbus and home, then would I ever be able to lead us in anything?! A fight followed. Long story short, she was right, and my pride was wrong. She knew how to get us home, and I didn’t know which way to go.

That little spat seems so long ago and insignificant now, ten years later. However, there is a set of directions that God wants us to know, which have eternal relevance. God really and truly wants us to know the way of salvation, his way of salvation, without any error or confusion. The problem is that many times when I talk to people about the way of salvation—be it here in rural Illinois, in the south where “everybody is a Christian,” or in the Bronx of New York City—I find that there is more confusion than clarity. Paul’s disciples in Galatia faced confusion about the way of salvation. Some other teachers had followed Paul’s visit to them, and they had spread confusion throughout the church there. Paul wrote a pretty serious warning to them,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (read “let him go to hell!”). As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6–9).

False teachers had slipped into the Galatian congregation, and they were teaching a “Christ plus works gospel,” which really isn’t the gospel. This “gospel” said that in addition to trusting in Christ’s death and resurrection for salvation, the people also had to be circumcised to truly be saved and a part of God’s forever family.

Even though Paul is very strong in his letter to the Galatians, many people today who would identify themselves as Christians do not understand the true gospel of grace that the Galatians had first received from Paul. Friend, do you know the way of salvation that God himself has provided for you in Christ and through his faithfulness? Compare the graphics below, and ask yourself which way you view as the way of salvation?

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 11.25.14 AM

 

The “works alone” view of salvation often comes up in a conversation like this:

Evangelist: On what basis do you think you are saved and will spend eternity with God?

Person: Well, I think that I have lived a pretty good life—I am a pretty good person. I haven’t cheated on my wife or killed anyone.

The “works alone” person looks at the Ten Commandments and says—I have kept all of these since my youth. God will accept me based upon my good works and keeping of his law. Yet, Paul says in Galatians 2:16 that no one—not even the Jews who first received the law of God—will be justified by works of the law. Paul says in another place—“None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:23). In other words, all of our works are like what Isaiah describes,

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities (Isaiah 64:6–7 ESV).

Isaiah says in another place that our sins have caused a separation between us and God. Therefore, the testimony of Scripture seems to indicate that rather than our works healing the divide between us and God, rather our works and deeds have separated us from God. So, this cannot be the way of salvation.

The “Christ + Works” view of salvation is tricky. Oftentimes, people get confused, because they think that surely God requires obedience as a requirement for salvation in addition to Christ’s work. Many times, the person who holds such a view has no assurance that they are saved and has no certainty when it comes to his/her eternity. Those who teach such a view end up heaping all kinds of regulations and rules onto people that have nothing to do with the way of salvation. A person—even if they once considered themselves saved—might even feel that they didn’t keep up their end of their bargain with God and lost what salvation they may have once possessed. Further, this view misunderstands the place of obedience in the way of salvation. It doesn’t fully recognize that salvation is a process that God initiates, sustains, and finishes. Yes, obedience is a part of salvation, but the important question is where should it be found in the process? Christian salvation can be broken down into three parts:

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 1.11.29 PM

There is much more to salvation than this simple graphic represents, but let’s start here. Justification refers to when God declares a person righteous by faith, like Abraham in Genesis 15:6, “And he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and [the Lord] counted it to him [Abraham] as righteousness.” Paul says it this way in Galatians 2:16, “yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” He says the same thing again in Romans 3:21–22,

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed– namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.

The NET Bible does a good job instructing us that we must believe in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to be justified or made right with God. He did the work and finished it; we just need to trust in its necessity and sufficiency. Justification frees us from the penalty of sin. The step of obedience with regard to justification is to simply believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Genuine justifying faith leads to growth in holiness at a pace and through seasons that God determines. Sanctification refers to the process of spiritual growth, or becoming who we already are in Christ. God’s Spirit gradually over time sanctifies us—makes us holy. Sanctification frees us from the power of sin. The step of obedience here is to continue believing the gospel in such a way that we yield our lives to the death and resurrection of Christ—dying to sin and living a new life. The Galatians also misunderstood this. Look at Galatians 3:1–4,

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it?

We both begin and continue the Christian life by faith and by the Spirit. Later in the letter when Paul warns them about “falling from grace,” he means not that true believers would somehow lose their salvation, but rather true believers who seek to grow by a method of law-keeping cut themselves off from the true means of Christian growth—the grace of God in Christ. Such a person then becomes a useless Christian, drowning in immaturity and carnality, inviting the chastisement of his/her heavenly Father, and out of fellowship with God. The sanctifying power of God through his Spirit in the believer opposes our sinful natures and brings us back if we wander. This prevents any kind of license to sin after we’ve been justified (see Rom. 6:1ff). D. L. Moody once said,

Christians should live in the world, but not be filled with it. A ship lives in the water; but if the water gets into the ship, she goes to the bottom. So Christians may live in the world; but if the world gets into them, they sink.

Lastly, glorification frees us fully and finally from the presence of sin. This is what God’s people will experience in the resurrection or at the rapture of the Church. You can read more about the process of Christian salvation in Romans 8:26–30. The step of obedience here is to rest in the assurance that Christ is enough to save us completely. As the apostle John says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

The “Christ Alone” view of salvation is the true way of salvation. This is it. When the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:30 asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, they respond in 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. . . .” Christ’s own faithfulness on the cross and in the resurrection saves us. It’s Christ plus nothing. You see, God himself has done the work of salvation for us—this is why there will be no boasting in our works, like it says in Ephesians 2:8–9,

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

The only boasting in heaven will be about the faithfulness of Jesus’ work.

So, have you trusted in Christ alone for your salvation? There is no other name under heaven by which people may be saved. If you have never trusted Christ alone as your Savior, won’t you do so today? Listen once more to the Scriptures in Titus 3:3–7,

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

I hope you now feel that you have clear directions to get “home” — home to heaven and life with God forever. No one explained the clear directions to God better than Jesus himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Don’t be like I was with my new bride—prideful and arrogant about my own ability to find the way. Humble yourself before God as a sinner, and admit your need for Christ alone to be your Savior. When you first believe, God will justify you and set you free from the penalty of sin, which is hell. Then, he will gradually grow you each day—sanctifying you by faith in the gospel and by the power of his Spirit in you. Finally one day, God will transform you fully and finally—body and soul—and you’ll spend forever with him. May this good news find you today and set you free.

In Christ,

Pastor Rex

Where To Go from Here? Christian Local Church Ministry following the SCOTUS Decision on Same-Sex Marriage

It almost isn’t news anymore. Things come and go so quickly these days in the news. However, the Supreme Court of the United States’ (SCOTUS) decision to nationally secure the right for same-sex couples to marry will no doubt have ripple effects for years to come.

For me, I have been reading about this issue, probably just like you have been. I have read news articles and numerous Christian responses to the SCOTUS decision. Some churches are employing the decision to make a shift themselves on the issue, becoming more accepting of the idea of monogamous, same-sex relationships. Other churches are digging in their heals and getting ready for a wave of religious intolerance like the USA has never seen.

In recent weeks, I have personally received two requests to respond to the issue. One came from a family member who received a disturbingly persuasive argument for same-sex marriage that claimed to be biblical, and the other came from a pastor friend whose daughter attends a church in New York City that recently shifted its stance on the matter of same-sex marriage to become more inclusive. Therefore, I imagine that just as I am receiving emails or letters like this, you probably are too.

I don’t know that I will add anything new to what many have already said—so much ink has already been spilled. However, I do want to at least provide a summary of some things that have already been said. Additionally, I think it is important for us to understand why some evangelical churches are shifting on this issue. Finally, where do we go from here as a local church? It is inevitable I think that some of us will have interactions with homosexuals—whether at work, friends or friends of friends, and perhaps even family members. And we need to be ready to respond in truth and in love.

Why Are Some Churches Shifting on the Issue?

The first and perhaps the major reason churches are making this shift is due to an improper hermeneutic. Hermeneutics is the art and science of acquiring the meaning of Scripture; that is, it is interpretive method. Some evangelical Christians today are looking at the major texts that touch directly on the issue of homosexuality (e.g., Gen. 19:5; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 6:9; and 1 Tim. 1:10) and opening themselves up to interpretive methods that aren’t necessarily new, but rather are becoming more publicly preferred in our politically correct climate. I can sum these up into three.

The Postmodern Hermeneutic says that the Bible can say whatever the interpreter wants it to say. There is a movie that illustrates this problematic interpretative method called The Book of Eli. As the story goes, there is one Bible left in the whole world, and Eli has it. Throughout the story it is clear that God is with Eli to protect him and his word. But there is a bad guy. The bad guy knows that whoever has that book can use it to control people; the person who has the “word of God” can make it say whatever he wants in order to make people feel divine obligation to do what he says. President Mark Bailey of Dallas Theological Seminary once wisely stated that,

The inability to exhaust all knowledge does not mean that we cannot know some things.

The point is that, “No,” you may certainly not use the Bible to make it mean whatever you want it to mean. The Spirit of God in the church has a history of interpretation. The Bible many times even interprets itself. So, in the case of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, neither side can simply make the Bible say whatever they would like it to say. The Bible, believe it or not, has its own voice.

The Abused Redemptive Hermeneutic is an unfortunate use of an otherwise good hermeneutic. The redemptive hermeneutic at its most basic level helps us to understand trajectories in Scripture. For example, I think most biblical scholars would admit to redemptive movement in the role of women in religious service as you move from the beginning of the Old Testament to the end of the New Testament. The idea of male headship is continuous throughout Scripture in places like the home and in the pastorate; however, there is also a movement with the nature of salvation in the gospel that further redeems the role of women in the religious life of God’s people. For example, the priesthood of all believers applies to women too. Women receive gifting from the Spirit too in order to help build the church. Whereas in the Old Testament, women were more limited in the religious life and service. The idea of slavery seems to also experience transformation from the old to the new. Not only, does Paul call both slaves and masters to a commonality in Christ, but his letter to Philemon concerning the runaway slave Onesimus was socially different because of the gospel’s implications. Coming to the homosexuality and same-sex issue, I feel that this redemptive hermeneutic has been abused. The reason is because Scripture itself never ever indicates any change in trajectory with regard to homosexual relationships and practices. From the Old to the New, the message is the same—homosexual desire and practice are forbidden. Sexual immorality is treated the same; Marriage is treated the same.

Lastly, the Silence Hermeneutic is probably the most frequently used interpretive method that I see being used in writings on the issue right now. It goes something like this: “Since the Bible does not directly address the issue of monogamous, same-sex marriage and since Jesus himself never spoke to that issue, we can best respond to these relationship by love, acceptance, and inclusion within the body of Christ.” Such adherents would explain away the previously mentioned Bible passages (e.g., Gen. 19:5; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 6:9; and 1 Tim. 1:10) as referring to a kind of exploitive homosexual behavior (such as rape or pederasty) or to an idolatry-based homosexual behavior. The problems with this way of understanding the Bible are very important. First, the Bible never addresses the idea of same-sex marriage because it forbids such sexual possibility. The Bible clearly forbids sexual possibilities with certain people and even with animals; for example, the Christian man is forbidden to consider the sexual possibility of a relationship with another man’s wife. It doesn’t matter if that man chose or did not choose to have feelings for another man’s wife, nor does it matter how strong those urges are, rather it matters that God has forbidden the sexual possibility of such a relationship. Therefore, because the Bible forbids the sexual possibility between a male and another male or a female with another female, we can easily correlate that same-sex marriage is a forbidden relationship. When the Bible uses the phrase “sexual immorality” or in the older versions “fornication” to translate the Greek word πορνεία, the phrase is functioning as a sort of “catch-all” for all of the sexual deviations from God’s original design for human sexuality. I personally see continuity between the Leviticus descriptions in chapter 18 with Jesus’ reference in Matthew 19:9 and with the apostolic decree at the end of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:28–29. So, the question begs, does the Bible view same-sex desire and sexual possibility as sexual immorality (which would preclude the idea of same-sex marriage)? In my view, this is exactly the biblical category to which it belongs, along with premarital sex, adultery, adulterous lust, exploitive sex, incest, idolatry-related sexual practice, etc. Second, the claim of some that Jesus never spoke to the issue is deceptive. When he was asked about divorce (as recorded in the Gospels), his answer was very clear, and the source on which he built his answer happened to be Genesis 2:24 and the broader Genesis 1–2 teaching on the topic of marriage. Therefore, he uses Scripture to provide a proper interpretative answer to the question about divorce (Mark 10; Mathew 19). I think it is fair and safe to assume that he would go back to the exact same place if he were to have been asked whether it was lawful for a man to marry another man, or for a woman to marry another woman. He would go back to the ideal set forth at the beginning. So, we must not trample all over Scripture in order to carry out a desire to become more inclusive and welcoming.

Where Do We Go from Here? Teach Truth; Love Well

My aim here has been to interact with the Scriptures and to assess how other churches are failing to faithfully interpret Scripture on this matter. I realize there are other matters weighing into the discussion, such as the more secular and material arguments for allowing same-sex marriage in the context of a democracy where every person is not a Christian. However, I am a Christian, and we are Christians here at West Lisbon, and for our part in this democracy of ours, to the best of our ability, we begin with what our God has spoken because we believe that adhering to his word leads to general blessings for ourselves and for those whose lives we touch (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:12–16). So, what is a church like ours to do in the midst of this wave of sexual immorality in our culture? Well, I’m convinced that we must continue to teach the truth of God’s word, and we must continue to love as Christ loves. We cannot afford to weaken on these two fronts.

On the truth front, we must faithfully teach God’s design for sexuality between one man and one woman in a committed marriage relationship until death breaks that covenant. We need to uphold this truth not only in the context of same-sex marriage discussions, but also in the face of the cultural trend of no-fault, easy divorce. Starting with our young, we need to instruct them about God’s ideals of sacrificial love and purity as something worth fighting for in relationships, thought-life, and technology consumption. We need to continue to help young people think and pray through the biblical expectation of the lifelong covenant of marriage; help them enjoy their single years pursuing the Redeemer and other significant friendships; prepare them with wisdom about finances and education decisions. We must teach the truth about sin and about the dangers of sexual deviation from God’s design. We must continue to teach the truth about gracious God who loves sinners and who wants to give them power to overcome the slavery of sin in their lives.

In an ideal world and in ideal scenarios, everyone just believes the truth at an early age and brokenness is minimized, and we all sing, “Shout to the Lord.” But what about for those of us who “come broken sexually to be mended, wounded sexually to be healed, desperate sexually to be rescued, empty sexually to be filled”? What about those of us who come to the church a sexual mess? Is there any hope? Yes, there is, and this hope begins to be experienced by the broken person when the church members love well. One of the ways we can love well is by being super passionate about seeing God gift to a person authentic humanity in Christ. If you are passionate about seeing such a thing develop, then you’ll be friends with the broken person. You’ll share God’s story with the broken person. You’ll sacrificially offer your time to the broken person. With specific regard to the same-sex issue of our day, I am convinced that part of authentic humanity—as God intended it in the beginning and which he is giving anew in Christ—is our respective male-ness or female-ness. We were made to be either male or female. I believe sin clouds the capacity of our respective genders to glorify God. Remember, God created us male and female to bear his likeness. This image-bearing potential is restored in Christ, so one of the ways that we love well is by affirming gender distinctions and by helping develop true manhood and true womanhood for the glory of God.

For Your Personal Study and Devotion

As I said earlier, a lot of ink has been spilled on this topic. Here, I’d like to list a few things to read and offer a final prayer for the church and for our world in general. You should be able to Google search all of these articles and books:

“The Bible and Same-Sex Marriage: 6 Common But Mistaken Claims” by Dr. Darrell Bock for The Gospel Coalition

“40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags” by Kevin DeYoung for The Gospel Colation

“Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” by Dr. Denny Burk for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? by Kevin DeYoung 

The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hays

Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by Williams J. Webb

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I also have been reading those who would be on the opposite side of this discussion, and if you would like some of those references, I’d be happy to give you those privately. Just let me know.

Consider the context of Romans 1:18–32, I’d like to leave you with a challenge to pray for the spiritual awakening of our nation. Personally, I think there is a deeper spiritual issue in our nation than homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I would say that these things are symptoms of a bigger, more dangerous, underlying problem. The problem is this: there is a sweeping neglect and suppression of the knowledge of God among Americans, even in the church. We have lived so long in comfort, ease, and recreation, that we have largely forgotten our desperate need for God. Pastor Tony Evans has many times said that the church is the spiritual immune system of the nation, if the immune system is weak, then you will begin to see the effects in the broader culture. What if God is turning us over to the decline in Romans 1:18–32 because we have stopped hungering and thirsting for him? And what if the church is at the center of the problem . . . and the solution? What if one of the ways you can minister to the homosexual community is by praying for personal revival that will lead to awakening in the church that will snowball into revival in the nation? God made and saves us to worship him; if we forget him, things always decline.

Summer Fun at the Brooklyn Tabernacle

Right now we’re on our flight home and we had a great time in New York! This Summer Fun Week at Brooklyn Tabernacle Church was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had. Working in Brooklyn was very different than VBS at West Lisbon but I loved every second of it. There were lots of fun times loving on the kids and playing games with them. And I learned a lot while sitting with the kids and learning about God’s salvation, his peace, wisdom, comfort, and unconditional love during story time. I had so many great moments but one of the experiences that sticks out to me the most was with a little girl I became very close with. On Monday we were learning about John 3:16 and how God will always forgive us. She was telling me about God’s love and forgiveness and I was agreeing with her and then she said, “All you have to do is say, ‘I’m sorry Allah, I love you.'” Then I realized that we had different beliefs about who God was. She went on to tell me that she called God Allah, but he was the same God that Christians and Jews believed in. On Tuesday we were singing a song which said, “He is the King of Kings. He is the Lord of Lords. His name is Jesus.” After we sang this song, the girl asked me why we were saying that Jesus is the King of Kings because he wasn’t a king when he lived on earth. I was telling her about how he came to earth to save us, he is God’s son, and more. Then she said he wasn’t God’s son because he was a prophet. Then she began talking about Muhammad and other things. She had to leave right after this so I did not get a chance to talk to her anymore that day, but that night I was able to ask Pastor Rex about that and how to talk about this sort of topic with a five year old. So the next day I was talking to her again about the Bible and how the Bible is always true. We were talking about how the Bible says that Jesus is the King and more. She understood this but still had some questions and comments about how she had learned different things about Jesus and God. For the rest of the week I was able to have some one on one time with her everyday and we would talk about God and Jesus and tried to answer the questions she had and kept trying to encourage her in having questions. On the last day of VBS her mom came in to pick her up and I was able to talk to her for a little while. She said her daughter really enjoyed the week and thanked us for having her. It was very interesting to me that she was coming to a VBS at a Christian church but had many thoughts that were more Muslim. Since meeting this little girl I have been praying for her to keep becoming more curious about God and keep looking for truth about who He is as well as her being given more and more opportunities to go to places like Brooklyn Tabernacle’s Summer Fun Week. I would love if you all would continue praying for her to keep learning more about the truth of God as well as all the other little children.

We also found out that another little girl accepted Jesus as her Savior this week!!! Thank you all for all your prayers before and during this trip. Everything came together so great and so many lives were changed including ours. Thank you again!!!

— Mackensie Friestad