The Beatific Vision

What I am about to say will not win me any popularity contests. I have become increasingly concerned about some of my friends. You may be one of them. So, please read on. However, before I address my concerns, I think you need to understand something about my own journey.Vision Road Sign with dramatic blue sky and clouds.

Recently, I have been particularly impressed with the uniqueness of the Wesleyan view of the Christian life. Wesleyans are enraptured by the beatific vision. Charles Wesley articulated this vision for the early methodists through his hymns. Perfection and perfect love were an aspiration for him. His hymns are replete with the aspiration of holiness. In the hymn known under the title O For a Thousand Tongues, Wesley wrote:

Anticipate your heaven below,
And own, that love is heaven”

In his hymn O for a Heart to Praise My God, Charles prays for a renewed heart:

An heart in every thought renew’d,
And full of love divine,
Perfect, and right, and pure and good,
A copy, Lord, of thine.

Thy nature, dearest Lord, impart,
Come quickly from above,
Write thy new name upon my heart,
Thy new, best name of love.

In another hymn, he prays a similar prayer:

Jesu, thy all-victorious love
Shed in my heart abroad;
Then shall my feet no longer rove
Rooted and fixt in God.

O! That in me the sacred fire
Might now begin to glow,
Burn up the dross of base desire,
And make the mountains flow!

O that it now from heaven might fall,
And all my sins consume!
Come, Holy Ghost, for thee I call,
Spirit of burning come!

Even in the ninth and twelfth stanzas of that song employ the future tense and the imprecatory language:

Refining fire, go through my heart,
Illuminate my soul,
Scatter thy life through every part,
And sanctify the whole.

My stedfast soul, from falling free,
Can now no longer move;
Jesus is all the world to me,
And all my heart is love.

Herein lies a major distinction of the Wesleyan-holiness churches and other churches: the former teach, preach and sing about the hope of transformation. The hymns and the message of the Wesleys are infused with hope – the hope of transformation. Wesleyans believe that Christlikeness is the very goal of the Christian life. Attending a church which teaches, preaches and sings keeps this hope of transformation alive.

Why is it so important? It is important because of the law of faith. Jesus laid down a law of the Christian life when he asserted: “It shall be done to you according to your faith” (Matt. 9:29, ASV). This law of faith is significant. If we imbibe the message that the norm of the Christian life is to sin everyday in word, thought, and deed, then our experience will not rise above our faith. If we do not believe that Christlikeness is possible, it will never become a reality. If we do not believe that living holy lives is possible, we’ll never live holy lives.

Many preachers, churches and denominations do not teach their hearers to anticipate such a lofty experience. However, the Scriptures underscore the importance of the vision that transforms: Paul wrote, “…we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18, NKJV).

There is a real connection between holiness and hope. The hope of transformation – the vision of Christ is transformative. Paul’s message is infused with hope, the hope of transformation in the image of Christ. Paul raises our sights. He lifts our vision from the mundane to the best. He doesn’t allow us to live in the lowlands. No, Paul invites us to scale the mountain top of Christian experience.

Don’t dwell in the lowlands. Jesus calls us to the mountain top of Christian experience: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48, NIV).

Are You a Christian?

Are you a Christian? Before you answer that question too quickly, listen to Jesus’ warning: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt. 7:21, NKJV).  Jesus predicted that people will anticipate salvation at the final judgment, they will be shocked to discover that they had been deceived throughout life.  At judgment, they will assert their service to the Lord as a ticket to heaven (v. 22), but will find themselves condemned because they “practice lawlessness” (v. 23).  Clearly, like the trees that “do not bear good fruit,” people who do not do the will of God will be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 19).  The very foundation for the condemnation is that they “practice lawlessness” (v. 23).

In defining sin, the Apostle John underscored lawlessness or the spirit of rebellion as the essence of sin: “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).  You may already connect the dots between what Jesus said and what John said.  You may be thinking, “If Jesus says that all will be judged for lawlessness at the final judgment and John says that ‘whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness,’ we are all in trouble because we all sin!”  You may despair saying, “Who then can be saved for we all sin?”  However, John has good news for us.

As a matter of fact, victory over sin characterizes born again believers.  John writes, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:8b-9).  John Wesley clarified John’s definition of sin as follows: “an actual, voluntary ‘transgression of the law’ of the revealed, written law of God; of any commandment of God acknowledged to be such at the time that it is transgressed” (The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God, Sermon 19).  John’s definition emphasizes that the very essence of sin is rebellion against God.

Born again believers are delivered not only from the guilt of sin, but also the power of sin. Such believers are not only forgiven for past sins but are given victory over outward sin. The key to victory over sin is the “seed” (1 John 3:9) which Wesley defines as “that loving, praying, thankful faith” (The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God, Sermon 19).  In other words, the person who exercises “loving, praying thankful faith” has victory over outward sin.

I hear you objecting:  “Well, I know of some sinning saints in my local church. In fact, there are some pretty poor examples of sinning saints in the Bible.  If John is right, why do we have “sinning saints” in the church or examples in the Bible?  Why do born again believers sin when John says they do not?  How can a born again believer sin?”  Wesley addressed this question:  “…so long as ‘he that is born of God keeps himself,’ (which he is able to do, by the grace of God,) ‘the wicked one touches him not:’ But if he doesn’t keep himself, if he doesn’t abide in the faith, he may commit sin even as another man” (adapted from The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God, Sermon 19).  As long as the believer guards the seed (“the loving, praying, thankful faith”), he cannot sin.  When one does not guard the seed, one sins.

Following their conversion, believers may sin.  When they do so, they should confess it and trust in Christ “as the atoning sacrifice” (1 Jo. 2:1-2).  Grace and forgiveness is available for post-conversion sins.  However, sin if it remains unconfessed, it severs one’s relationship with God.  To sin is to deviate from the faith.

For this reason, the Apostle John warns, “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18).  So, I encourage you with the closing words of John’s letter, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1 John 5:21).

Law or Grace?

I just read for my devotions this morning the majority of the book of Galatians – one of the earliest letters of Paul written to the church of Galatia.  The letter is a powerful treatise on the importance of grace in the Christian life.  A group of Judaizers, a heretical group, insisted on the adherence to the Jewish rite of circumcision as the means of entrance into the Christian life.  Paul was angry about this heresy. In fact, Paul was so angry that he didn’t offer a prayer of thanksgiving as he does in all of his other letters (e.g. 1 Thess. 1:4-10).  Normally, a prayer of thanksgiving should appear between verses 5 and 6 of Galatians 1, but Paul wasn’t very thankful when he wrote to the Galatian church.  Paul is angry that these Judaizers are undermining the very gospel that he preaches; he is, in fact, so angry that he wishes that the knife would slip when they are performing circumcision (Gal. 5:12)!  Now that is pretty angry!

However, this letter raises some very important questions for the Christian life.  Does Paul advocate doing away with the law entirely?  Does Paul advocate abolishing the law?  Does the law have any validity for the Christian today?

I have heard people use Paul’s writings in this way.  I have heard individuals argue, “As a Christian, I am no longer under the law.  I can sin at will. If I have sex outside of marriage, it doesn’t matter.  God forgives me.”  Or, “As a Christian, I am freed from obedience to the law.  I am under no obligation to tithe.  I am free from the legal constraints of the Old Testament.”  In essence, such people make an argument for antinomianism from the two root words, “anti” meaning “against” and “nomos” meaning “law.”  Such people argue for a lawless Christianity.   Is this what Paul intended?  Was Paul a Scrooge who disagreed with the Christmas angel who, announcing the birth of Jesus, explained, “he [Jesus] will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21)?  Did Paul take exception to Jesus’ pronouncement: “I didn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them” (cf. Matt. 5:17ff.)?  Had Paul come to destroy what Jesus came to establish?  Perhaps we had better take a second look at Galatians.

Paul certainly advocates liberty in Galatians, but the liberty he advocates is not libertine lawlessness of a fornicator.  Paul warns the would-be antinomian professors of Christianity: “You, my brothers, are called to liberty. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature…” (Gal. 5;13).  Paul exhorts, “Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Gal. 5:16).  Paul does not advocate a sinful lifestyle at all, but encourages the believers to restore anyone who is “caught in a sin [notice the singular!]” (Gal. 6:1).

On one hand, Paul appears to speak negatively about the law; on the other hand, he seems to advocate obedience to it.  What is Paul saying in Galatians?  Is Paul schizophrenic?  Paul is saying that circumcision and the law are not the means of entrance into the Christian life. No one can earn their initial salvation. Nothing I do can make me a Christian.  As Augustus M. Toplady wrote, “In my hands no price I bring, Simply to the Cross I cling.”

What role does the law play in the life of the believer?  It gives structure to the believer’s loving response to God.  This is what Paul means in Galatians 5:18: “…if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.”  When we are filled with the love of God (Rom. 5:5; Gal. 5:22-26), we fulfill (as Jesus expected, Matt. 5:17ff.) the law out of sheer love and delight for the Lord.  What joy!  What delight to be so filled with the love of God as to love and honor Him and to serve Him and others!

Really Good News

I like reading church signs and marquees!  Sometimes, I borrow the sayings for my teaching or preaching.  However, church marquees are not always good sources for sound doctrine.  Here is one example: “Do not judge others just because they sin differently than you.”  The author of the mantra, I assume, wanted to protect everyone from judgmental attitudes and points to the human tendency to rationalize sin.  While the author’s motives may be admirable, the question is: Does it express biblical truth? 

Apparently, the author believes that it is wrong to pass judgment on other people, but advances his argument by passing judgment on the addressees![*]  The statement is self-refuting.  The author judges (or condemns) his addressees for judging others and further makes a judgment (or an assumption) that everyone is sinning. The author shoots himself in his own foot.  He falls under his own condemnation.

Not only is this statement self-refuting, it also promotes antinomianism (lawless thinking and living).  The author assumes others are constantly sinning and that sin is inherent in human nature. Please allow me to explain.

Being human is not equivalent to being a sinner. Sin is neither inherent in human nature nor essential to human nature. Sin was and is an aberration from God’s good creation. Remember God created and pronounced humanity good (Gen. 1:27-31).

Of course, Adam and Eve fell in the Garden. One of the effects of their sin was and is the pervasiveness of sin.  Throughout the Bible, there are passages which make reference to the pervasive sinfulness of humanity.  Without doubt, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory (or image) of God” (Rom. 3:23).  The point which Paul makes in this context is that the righteousness of God justifies freely through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.  God forgives and justifies the sinner and begins the process of the restoration of the image of God, i.e. sanctification (2 Cor. 3:18). 

Does this give believers the right to claim sinlessness?  No, believers cannot say, as did the schismatics of the Apostle John’s day, “We have not sinned” (1 John 1:10).  John responds that the Bible reveals God as One who forgives sin, and this would be pointless if humans had not sinned.  The schismatics who deny their sin fall into the serious sin of making God out to be a liar (v. 10).  Christians should not sin though they potentially might sin after conversion (1 John 2:1).  While acknowledging the possibility of sin and asserting the need of the atoning work of Christ in such instances, John argues that sinning does not characterize the Christian (1 John 3:8-9). 

The statement, “Do not judge others just because they sin differently than you,” doesn’t accord with the Bible because it makes the assumption that sin characterizes the life of believers. In this statement, sin is a normal, inescapable component of the Christian life.  Although Jesus came to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), the author of this statement does not believe in the power of God to deliver from sin.

The Scripture reveals the horrific condition of sinful humanity and the pervasiveness of sin, but thankfully it discloses the remedy as well.  God can enable and empower us to live victoriously.  This is the hope of the Gospel!  This indeed is Good News – really Good News!


 

[*] I am going to assume that the author is male in order to eliminate the repetition of  pronouns, e.g. “his/her.”

Judge Not?

The following post is a response to some other posts on Facebook on the subject of the command of Jesus, “Judge not…” in Matthew 7:1.

My question focuses on the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  Since Jesus himself judged the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:1ff.), it is apparent that Jesus did not condemn all judging.  D. A. Carson, in his commentary on Matthew, points out that Jesus insists in the Sermon on the Mount that his disciples make moral distinctions and thus, make judgments.  Carson writes, “Jesus himself goes on to speak of some people as dogs and pigs (v. 6) and to warn against false prophets (vv. 15-20)” (D. A. Carson, “Matthew” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, in loco).  If Christ warns believers against false prophets, he challenges them to discernment and to make judgments about individuals who subvert the purposes of the kingdom of God (Matt. 7:15).  In addition, Jesus states, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).  Since Jesus commands his disciples to make judgments, he cannot condemn all judging.  What, then, is the meaning of this command not to judge?

 As one looks at the broader context, it is apparent that Jesus warns against differing standards of judgment (Matt. 7:2).  Obviously, one must apply judgments equally to all persons, including one’s self.  Jesus warns against a hypocritical blindness in rendering judgment which fails to make applications of truth to one’s self (Matt. 7:3).  Carson argues that the context signifies “Do not be judgmental.”  “Do not adopt a critical spirit, a condemning attitude” (Carson, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 99).  Adam Clarke agrees that a judgmental attitude is the principle target of Jesus’ condemnation: “These exhortations are pointed against rash, harsh, and uncharitable judgments…” (Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, in loco). D. A. Carson states it succinctly: “What is fundamentally at stake, I think, is attitude” (Carson, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 99).

The Scripture calls believers to live holy lives (Heb. 12:14).  An overemphasis on the holiness of believers can lead one to censoriousness. Self-perceived saints can become convinced of their own superiority and denigrate other persons because they view them as inferior to themselves.  This is an ugly form of hypocrisy. Against such an attitude, Jesus warns.

I agree that a judgmental attitude and behavior are unloving and wrong.  However, is judgment itself wrong or unloving?  Let me give an example.  A man sexually abuses a nine year old girl and is arrested for the terrible crime.  In the courtroom, the judge hears the evidence and concludes that the man is guilty.  If the judge decides not to punish the man perhaps because he has had a troubled background, does the judge act in a loving manner?  Does not the judge act lovingly toward the victim, the victim’s family, the society as a whole, and even the perpetrator himself by punishing him?  Is it not a loving act to punish such a heinous crime to remind the man in this life that he will face the judgment of God in the next life which will seal his destiny forever?  Is it not an act of mercy to judge him now to remind him of the future judgment?  Are we prohibited from making judgments about a Hitler, a Stalin or a Nixon? 

The early church practiced judgment to discipline its members in order to bring them into conformity with the spirit and character of Jesus Christ.  For example, the apostle Paul judged a man within the church at Corinthfor his sexual immorality and demands that the church joins Paul in judging the man (1 Cor. 5:1-5).  In another letter, Paul uses strong language against those who subverted the gospel by recommending circumcision to the Galatians (Gal. 5:12, cf. Gal. 1:8f.; Phil. 3:2).  John encouraged his readers to make judgments about the spirits and false prophets (1 John 4:1). Paul counsels the members of the church not to take their affairs before the civil judges, and insists that the members of the church have an important role in judging: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3). 

As a matter of fact, biblical sermons by faithful preachers render judgment because they reveal the distance between the present sinful condition of humanity and God’s goal of salvation: the image of God (2 Cor. 3:18). If human beings do not know they are sick, how could they seek a cure?  If they do not know they are sick, will they seek the services of a physician?  This is the reason preachers preach, Christian teachers teach, and believers witness: to lift up Jesus Christ as the pattern for all persons so that all may understand the great distance between their own lives and the example of Jesus.  Paul tells us that the law is the tutor to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:24), and it reveals sin and the distance between the divine ideal (the image of God) and the present human condition (Rom.7:7).

One of the greatest challenges to the church today is moral relativism.  It is the idea that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong and is expressed popularly “Who are you to push your morality on me?”  Moral relativism challenges Christianity because if there are no moral absolutes, there is no sin.  If there is no sin, there is no need for a Savior.

The words of Jesus, “Judge not,” are frequently understood as a mantra of relativists today.  If morals are like choosing the flavors of ice cream, then you choose the flavor that you like, and I could choose the flavor that I like.  In such a case, there are no absolutes; there are only personal preferences.  What I like may not be what you like.  If I try to force my flavor on you, you cry foul.  However, if morality is like medicine, then the case is very different.  If the doctor prescribes nitroglycerin for me because I have heart problems, taking my medicine will not help you with your pneumonia; in fact, it may actually harm you!  Morality is like medicine, not like flavors of ice cream (Greg Koukl uses this illustration). There are absolute standards of right and wrong.  As a Christian, I believe that the Scriptures reveal God who is the standard of righteousness for humanity.

Moral relativism has convinced people today of the myth of moral neutrality.  However, one cannot be morally neutral.  All of us have opinions on right and wrong and make moral judgments.  However, we must ensure that as Jesus commanded, we “make a righteous judgment” (Jo. 7:24).

In an age of moral relativism, the congregation cries “Don’t force your morality on me!” and the namby-pamby preachers comply by calling a spade anything but a spade.  May we all witness, preach, and teach the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  Pray for me, my brothers and sisters in Christ, that I may continually strive for this balance of grace and truth and that I may “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).  This is the prayer of

Your unworthy servant,

Russ

Letter to a Homosexual

The following letter is written to a homosexual man who posted a message on Nazarene Communications Network in response to an article entitled “Church of the Nazarene statement on marriage.”  You may see the original article and messages at the following link: http://www.ncnnews.com/nphweb/html/ncn/article.jsp?sid=10005006&id=10011370.  My letter below has been edited for this publication:

Dear Nealazachary,

Thank you kindly for your comment on the NCN article.  You express clearly a need for acceptance within the Church of the Nazarene.  I am grateful that you seek such acceptance within the denomination.

Would you please forbear the feeble attempts of one who has no official capacity with the Global Ministries Center to explain what he believes the position of the Board of General Superintendents on this subject seems to be? 

If I understand what you have written, you hold that it is impossible to maintain that homosexuality is sinful and at the same time to love the homosexual.  Allow me to attempt an explanation by means of a hypothetical illustration.  A seven year old boy has been impressed with superheroes and their superhuman powers.  One day as he is playing Superman, he climbs the ladder that his father left leaning against the gutter and scrambles to the peak of the roof.  With the bath towel secured by a safety pin around his neck, he peers over the side of the roof ready to jump, but his father sees him.  His father’s natural inclination is to cry out and order him not to jump because he loves him and does not want him to proceed believing he can fly just because he has a bath towel wrapped around his neck.  The boy was not created to fly; he doesn’t have wings.  It would be unloving for the father to allow him to jump believing that he is Superman. 

With the illustration in mind, allow me to explain to you why, I believe, the authors of the statement cited in the NCN article believe themselves to act in a loving way when they describe homosexuality as a sin.  The authors believe that homosexuality is unnatural to the created structure of humanity.  Like the father in the illustration above, the authors believe that it would be unloving for them not to cry foul because they believe homosexuality is a violation of the created order or a deviation from creation.

You raise some pointed questions about a biblical view of marriage: “Biblical definition of marriage? So what about when the Bible defines marriage as one man and multiple wives?”  First, let me assure you that the Bible does not define marriage as polygamous. While one finds within the Scriptures many aberrations from the divine plan (e.g. polygamy), the Scripture seems to be rather clear that the goal of Christian life is the restoration of humanity in the image of God (2 Cor. 3:18).  The image of God is revealed first and foremost in creation (Gen. 1:26-27).  Thus, while human beings fall short of the image of God, God through the sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit brings about the restoration of the image of God.  The focus of the work of God in redemption is the restoration of human beings in the original creation.  While you assert that “Sexuality is more complex then [sic] our 1972 definition of sexuality,” let me affirm that the biblical view of marriage is as old as creation.  The proper and biblical understanding of sexuality is simple as expressed by the statement of the General Superintendents: “between one man and one woman in a committed, lifelong relationship, is the only relationship within which the gift of sexual intimacy is properly expressed.”

The created order of humanity is the foundation for Paul’s arguments in Romans 1.  Paul argues that homosexual acts are unnatural because they violate the created structure of humanity (Rom.1:26-27).  In fact, Romans 1:18ff. reveal the progressive nature of sin with homosexual acts serving to expose the ever increasing depth of depravity of the (unnatural) human condition. 

I doubt that the biblical and theological explanation above satisfies you; it is not thorough enough to address your interpretation of Romans 1:18ff. (as well as other passages).  However, I hope that it sufficient for you to understand (though you may disagree with the interpretation) that the position taken by the denomination is grounded in its understanding of God’s creation of human beings.

Above all, allow me to reassure you that the Church of the Nazarene loves homosexuals and are compassionate toward them.  It is my prayer that you too will find it within yourself to be compassionate toward

Your unworthy servant,

Russ

The Wrath of God Was Satisfied?

Does you congregation sing the song the hymn “In Christ Alone”?  The song was written by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty and has become quite popular in evangelical churches.  While I love the majestic music of this particular hymn, I am concerned that the lyrics in one particular line of the song express blatant Calvinistic theology and throughout the song express latently such theology.   The particular line which concerns me the most appears in the following portion of the second verse:

Till on that cross, as Jesus died,

The wrath of God was satisfied;

For every sin on Him was laid,

Here in the death of Christ I live.

My primary concern is with the phrase: “The wrath of God was satisfied” which emphasizes the doctrine of propitiation.  The doctrine of the propitiation of the wrath of God teaches that the past, present and future sins of the recipients of divine grace have been transferred to Christ.  In this view, believers, as the popular maxim states, may (or must) “sin every day in word thought and deed.”  At very least, the outcome is theoretical, if not practical, antinomianism (lawlessness). 

I have other concerns with the above mentioned line.  Specifically, I am concerned about the eschatological dimensions of the phrase.  If the wrath of God has been satisfied by the atoning work of Christ, there is no further place for the wrath of God or the judgment of God in the future.  This is contrary to the teachings of John Wesley (not to mention the teachings of Jesus) who found it necessary, following the 1770 Minutes controversy with the Calvinistic branch of the Methodist movement, to distinguish between evangelical justification and final justification and to place greater emphasis on the latter in order to maintain an adequate polemic against antinomianism.  Final justification retains the important teaching of Revelation 20:12 which asserts “the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books” (cf. Revelation 22:12; Matthew 25:31-32; Romans 2:6, 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10) and guards against the “blanket” forgiveness which seals the believer against any condemnation for past, present or future sins.  While the believer’s hope is indeed In Christ Alone, the blood of Christ does not merely conceal transgressions from the eyes of God so that God views all sin through some sort of rose-colored glasses.  Against such theoretical antinomianism, I believe that the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin (1 Jo. 1:7, 9).

While copyright restrictions prevail, I wish the authors would permit adaptations to make it more commensurate with biblical theology.  I recommend changing the phrase “The wrath of God was satisfied” to “The love of God was glorified.”  In doing so, the song becomes more consistent, I believe, with what Scripture says.