Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Monday, February 23, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE - The Rich Young Ruler, Part 3

In Matthew's account, Jesus says "If you wish . . ." to the young man two times.

v. 17 If you WISH to enter into life . . . keep the commandments
v. 21 If you WISH to be complete . . . sell all you have, give to the poor, follow Me

The commandments of the Law (in general) and the commands of Christ (specifically) serve as a barometer by which man's desires can be discerned and measured. Jesus challenges us with this question: "What do you really want? Eternal life? Heavenly treasure? ME? Your stuff?"

Not every disciple is faced with this challenge right at the start, but eventually the worthiness of Jesus Christ will lay its rightful claim on everything else. Like Abraham, we will be asked to choose: God or His blessings? God or our dreams? God or self-will? A day is coming when we can have only God - or NOTHING - and on that day the thing we choose to put in His place will be separated away from us. In the grave we can no longer cling to earthly idols. Better to peel our greedy fingers off of them before death does it for us . . . but how?

In both cases, the Lord uses the Greek word, THELO.
THELO - To desire, be inclined toward; to delight in, have pleasure; to intend
What do we delight in the most? Our Creator may allow us to enjoy many things in and through Himself, but ultimately He will draw a dividing line and call us to choose. At this critical moment, rather than walking away grieved, the young man might better have admitted his sins of coveting and idolatry. Since he was already on his knees before the "good teacher," he might have considered asking for some good teaching on how to overcome his sin. If he had approached the Master weary and heavy laden, seeking rest for his soul, he would have found One who is willing to bear the yoke with him. To the lowly and weary-hearted, Jesus always said "Come." But to this man, the Lord's instruction was "Go."

If he had poured out his religious riches and declared himself spiritually bankrupt, he may have found it possible to give up worldly things in exchange for heavenly treasure. When we realize the eternal misery we deserve, and begin to comprehend the incredible mercy of God, temporal sacrifices become much easier to make. And they are then made for the right reasons. It's a matter of gratitude, worship, and love for a gracious God - not merits of self-righteousness. If the Almighty God demands pure devotion and complete surrender from little worms like us, we can be assured He will work in us to bring it about - providing we trust in Him.
"Give what You command, and command what You will."

"By the law of works God says: Do what I command! By the law of faith we say to God: Give what you command! After all, the law commands in order to remind us of what faith should do.”
-Augustine of Hippo
What the rich young man could never bring himself to do under law, he might well have done by grace. What he refused to do in the flesh, he could have accomplished through the Spirit. What his unredeemed heart would never do for Christ, his saved soul might gladly have done with Christ, and through Christ, and in Christ. But where there is no humility, there can be no divine strengthening. We are en-abled only when we admit we are un-able. When faith is absent, grace remains available but not availed. If Christ is not seen as the only possible good, other "goods" will always come between us and Him.

Oh, that this young man would not have walked away! Oh, that he would have brought a struggling heart to the Lord, instead of all his pretended perfections! If only he had surrendered as a sinner, he would have found grace to do all that God commanded. But, as it stands, he could not see beyond his own self-love, self-effort, and self-interest. The Lord gave this man a command that was quite impossible with his human self, but not at all impossible with God.

Why can't camels get through a needle? It's obvious: they're too large. But for every camel, there was a time when the needle's eye could easily have been navigated. All mammals begin their physical existence as a tiny group of life-packed cells (only one cell to begin with). To get back to such a place, a camel would have to be . . . born again. Dear friends, it is the same for you and me.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE: The Rich Young Ruler, Part 2

Jesus initially responded to the rich young ruler by taking him to the Law of Moses. The young man should have become convicted of sin, and convinced that it is impossible for righteousness to be attained by keeping the Law. But he was not. The riches of a religious life were holding him in blindness. How easy it is for us to become blinded by our own righteousness, to forget that any good in us is God's work, to believe that we ourselves have brought something meritorious to the salvation equation. In the Gospel, God is dying to lead us to a different conclusion. And in the Law, God has engraved our unworthiness and guilt in stone.

It is interesting to note that Jesus did not always refer people to the Law. Nicodemus, for example, was merely given a baffling command to be "born again," something not particularly related to the Law. The woman at the well was told the damning and embarassing facts about her sad life, but not a list of specific transgressions. The disciples heard the simple invitation, "Follow me," rather than a list of rules they had broken. There are those today who would encourage us to preach the Law before we preach the Gospel, or at least to include Law as a key part of the presentation. There is certainly wisdom in this approach, but let us never get ourselves stuck in a system that is unable to flex and respond to each individual God brings our way. There is a time to preach the Law, and there is a time to proclaim free mercy. There is a time to go straight to the cross, and even a time to listen quietly and shed tears. It all depends on the needs of the one with whom we are speaking. Let us be Spirit-led and guided by love, not just committed to a good method.

When the young man responded to the Law by asserting his self-righteousness, our Lord looked at him, and He loved him. This fact is significant, because Jesus is about to ask a wealthy real estate tycoon to give up everything he has. What motivates this demand for complete surrender? Only love.

If this man chooses to leave all and follow Christ, he will be responding to divine love. If he walks away, he will be rejecting it. May this be the case when we share the Gospel with others. Let our hearers be confronted with God's truth as we speak to them, and enveloped in God's love as we look upon them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 4 - Charles Spurgeon

This fantabulous quote from C.H. Spurgeon was recently posted on the Pyromaniacs blog. It perfectly describes what THEOparadox is all about . . .

"You know, beloved friends, that the general custom is, with the various sects of Christians, to take up one part of the Bible and preach that part, and then it is the duty of all divines on that side of the question not to preach anything but that. Or if they find a text that looks in rather a different direction, these gentlemen are expected to twist it round to suit their creed, it being supposed that only one set of truths can possibly be worth defending, it never having entered into the heads of some people that there can be two apparently irreconcilable truths which nevertheless are equally valuable.Think not that I come here to defend the human side of salvation at the expense of the divine; nor am I desirous to magnify the divine side of it at the expense of the human; rather would I beseech you to look at the two texts which are together before us, and to be prepared to receive both sets of truths. I think it a very dangerous thing to say that the truth lies between the two extremes. It does not: the truth lies in the two, in the comprehension of both; not in taking a part from this and a part from that, toning down one and modulating the other, as is too much the custom, but in believing and giving full expression to everything that God reveals whether we can reconcile the things or not, opening our hearts as children open their understandings to their father's teaching, feeling that if the gospel were such that we could make it into a complete system, we might be quite sure it was not God's gospel, for any system that comes from God must be too grand for the human brain to grasp at one effort; and any path that he takes must extend too far beyond the line of our vision for us to make a nice little map of it, and mark it out in squares.This world, you know, we can readily enough map. Go and get charts, and you shall find that men of understanding have indicated almost every rock in the sea, almost every hamlet on the land; but they cannot map out the heavens in that way, for albeit that you can buy the celestial atlas, yet as you are well enough aware there is not one in ten thousand of the stars that can possibly be put there; when they are resolved by the telescope they become altogether innumerable, and so far exceed all count that it is impossible for us to reckon them up in order and say, that is the name of this, and this is the name of that. We must leave them: they are beyond us. There are deeps into which we cannot peer; even the strongest glass cannot show us much more than a mere corner of the starry worlds.Thus too is it with the doctrines of the gospel: they are too bright for our weak eyes, too sublime for our finite minds to scan, save at a humble distance. Be it ours to take all we can of their solemn import, to believe them heartily, accept them gratefully, and then fall down before the Lord, and pour out our very souls in worshipping him."

-C.H. Spurgeon (from a sermon on John chapter 6)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE - The Rich Young Ruler, Part 1

This series examines some of the ways Jesus used the Law to bring conviction of sin and prove the impossibility of human perfection. Ultimately, Jesus' intention is to have us see our need and trustingly surrender to His sovereign Lordship.

We have seen this principle in Jesus' interaction with Nicodemus; now let's take a look at how our Lord responded to a very religious young man. The story is found in three of the four Gospels, in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18.

Below you can read the three accounts merged into one harmonized story, which will help us to notice some interesting details . . .

As He was setting out on a journey, a man who was a ruler ran up to Him, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do to inherit eternal life, that I may obtain eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments. Then he said to Him, "Which ones?" Jesus replied, "You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, Do not defraud, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER. And YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept from my youth up; what am I still lacking?" When Jesus heard this, looking at him, He felt a love for him and said to him,"One thing you still lack; If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions, all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But when the young man heard this statement, he became very sad and he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property and he was extremely rich. And Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! For again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were even more astonished and said to Him, "Then who can be saved?" But looking at them, Jesus said to them, "With people this is impossible, but not with God; the things that are impossible with people are possible with God, for all things are possible with God."

As we move along, I'll be looking specifically at the phrases highlighted in light blue. Several months ago, we studied the beginning of this story in a 4-part series called "My Goodness, What a Paradox!"

Jesus begins by leading this man to the Law of Moses. This Law was the God-ordained path by which the Jewish people were to be led to Christ, as Paul explains here:

Galatians 3:19-25 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions ... Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

The Law was not meant to be a means of salvation, but a means of exposing sin and proving the need for Christ's righteousness. It is not meant to save a person from sin and guilt. Rather, it proves us guilty and sinful. Jesus applied the Law with this purpose in mind.

The list of commandments given by our Lord is notable in three ways. First, he adds a commandment not directly given in the Old Testament: Do not defraud. Is it possible that the rich ruler had gained his wealth through a scheme of some sort? Or perhaps his money came from a father who had perpetrated such a scheme. Could it be that Jesus added this command to give the man an opporunity to question it - and thereby realize that he was guilty of breaking the spirit of the Law in this way? We can only speculate, but we have to address the obvious question, why did Jesus include this particular command in His list? Secondly, Jesus adds "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," which is not properly part of the ten commandments. Could it be the young man had not treated others with love, though he had lived a strictly moral life, outwardly? That, after all, was the plague of Pharisaism: a hyper religiosity with strict outward morality and supposed love for God - and all of it entirely discredited by a lack of compassion and an indifference to the needs of others. Thirdly, Jesus does not mention the first 4 commandments, which focus on our relationship with God. He also does not mention the last commandment, "Do not covet" - the only one of the 10 commandments that deals solely with the inward man. He gave the most tangible, obvious, outward commands dealing with our treatment of other human beings.

Jesus was applying the Law in a targeted way, aiming right at this man's most obvious sins. But the intended effect of the Law was not happening, and the elite ruler remained self-righteously blind to his need for a Savior. The Lord was not finished with him yet, however . . .

Friday, February 13, 2009

My Testimony

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.
I Tim 1:12-15

What follows is a brief account of the path by which God has graciously brought me to Himself . . .

From my earliest recollections, I grew up with the belief that I was a good person who did many good things and had a basically good heart. I thought God loved me because I was good, and any wrong I did was not really my fault. My family attended church and I made a commitment to Christ as a teenager. Afterward, for many years, I earnestly tried to follow God's commands as I understood them. But these efforts led to nagging frustration whenever I realized I was failing, and implacable self-deception whenever I managed to obey outwardly. No matter how much I tried to please God, my heart remained dead and cold. My actions proved that I was as proud, deceitful and self-centered as I was merciless, moralistic, legalistic, harsh, judgmental and condemning. The more determined I was to follow God's rules, the more troubled my soul became, and my sins multiplied. I was characterized by pride, anger, fear of man, hatred, lust, complaining, selfishness, unforgiveness, worry, criticism, and some sins too shameful to mention. My misery became unbearable. Nevertheless, I clung firmly to a strong trust in my own natural abilities and flawed wisdom.

Through hard circumstances, bitter failures, devastated relationships and a terrifying sense of hopelessness, I finally came to understand that I was a sinner, completely lost, darkened in my mind, foolish, justly condemned by a holy God, and desperately in need of His mercy. Gradually, through the light of Scripture, the counsel of caring friends and the Holy Spirit's persistent drawing, I began to see something utterly wonderful in God - a fact to which I had previously been inexplicably blind. Namely, that God loves sinners and desires to show mercy to them. That He is good, and His mercy is forever. That He is gracious, and ready to forgive, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness. That His mercy prevails over us and His kindness leads us to repentance. Captivated by these truths, I came to Christ as a poor sinner, trusting that He had the greatest love for me in spite of my wickedness. I cried out to Him to save me, holding fast to the promise that He had come to "seek and to save that which was lost." I trusted that the Friend of sinners would indeed "forgive all my iniquity" and "remember my sins no more," and that He would save me by His grace - for He had sacrificed His own life and blood FOR ME. I realized that these were merciful works of God, and that no man could do - or undo - what He had accomplished for me at the cross.

From that time, in spite of an ever-growing awareness of the depth and extent of my sinfulness, I have found rest in the assurance that all my sins are forgiven. I have discovered heart-level transformation happens only by His grace, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit - not by my futile striving and straining under the law. Some of the first evidences of new life were seen when I found myself viewing other people through a merciful rather than judgmental lens. Instead of getting angry about the sins of others, I was now able to draw my attention back to my own sin. The Lord helped me to take responsibility and stop blaming others for my faults. I began to trust God's sovereign plan, discipline, and fatherly care for His children. My heart became truly thankful for the many undeserved kindnesses He gives each day. And I learned to be grateful under the painful circumstances which He has ordained for His glory and my good. In short, my stubborn self-righteousness faded before the glorious radiance of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
I Timothy 1:17

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Five Solas of the Reformation Conference

You've probably heard about the anti-Calvinistic John 3:16 Conference. Recently a very different conference was held in South Georgia, and I was blessed to be a part of it. Here's how it happened . . .
My family recently started attending a different church. For about 3 years, we were part of a wonderful group of churches known as Sovereign Grace Ministries. However, the Sovereign Grace church in our area is a long distance from where we live. Although the doctrine and core values are a nearly perfect match for us, we felt a nudge from the Lord to get connected with a church closer to our home. As a result, we recently joined ourselves to Lakeside Community Church, a small but vibrant Evangelical Free church. I could say many things about the blessings we have received in this body of believers, but I want to share about the church retreat that took place this past weekend.

We gathered at Honey Creek Retreat Center in Waverly, Georgia - not far from where the John 3:16 Conference was held last year. Our guest speaker was Rick Bourque, pastor of East Side Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Rick has made a devoted study of the Reformation, Reformed theology, and Church History. He taught four great sessions on the 5 Solas of the Reformation:
SOLA SCRIPTURA - By the Word of God Alone
SOLA GRATIA - By Grace Alone
SOLA FIDE - Through Faith Alone
SOLUS CHRISTUS - In Christ Alone
SOLI DEO GLORIA - For the Glory of God Alone

Each session included teaching from the book of Romans, an explanation of one or two of the Solas, and a historical portrait of a person who embodied the doctrine. The historical figures were Martin Luther (Sola Scriptura), John Calvin (Sola Gratia & Sola Fide), John Owen (Solus Christus), and Jonathan Edwards (Soli Deo Gloria). All of this was encouraging, faith-building, and challenging.
We spent one evening singing hymns and learning the stories behind them. What came out clearly through the historical portraits and all of the hymn stories was this: God reveals His glory through our sufferings. John Owen had 11 children, ten of whom died in early childhood. The other child lived into her late teens, and then she too died. Owen's sparkling theological works were written in the midst of these tragedies, and this man who taught us what it means to "mortify sin" knew death up close. Jonathan Edwards wrote some of his best works after he was kicked out of his church and placed in an out-of-the-way pastorate. Calvin wrote the Institutes while he was being hunted down by the French government. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German while hiding from Catholic persecutors who were intent on killing him. And the lives of the hymn writers were similar: death, tragedy, poverty, pain, sickness. Every suffering led to to a greater glorification of the God who sustained them through it.
We also heard the testimony of retired Missionary, Al Larson, who attends Lakeside with his wife. Many years ago, they were part of a group of missionaries who were captured by rebels while serving in the Congo. After watching many of his friends and co-workers die at the hands of the rebels, Al managed to lead several prisoners to safety in a daring escape. Afterwards, he led a group of Cuban mercenaries to a house where the women and children were being held, and assisted in their rescue. Some years ago, all of this was recounted in a book called "Out of the Jaws of the Lion," by H. Dowdy. Missiologists believe that the sufferings of these missionaries planted the seeds for a revival that has come to the Congo in more recent years. The political instability and persecution continue, but God's glory shines in the darkness. I am grateful that my children can hear these firsthand accounts of God's faithfulness.

The photos in this post were taken at the retreat. Whether in the skies or in the fields, in the streams or in the trees, in our joys or in our sorrows - God paints a beautiful picture, revealing His exalted glory.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE: You Must Be Born Again, Part 3

Here's a quick re-cap:

Part 1 - We need to be saved, but we cannot save ourselves. New birth is required. Without it, we are spiritually dead and completely blind.

Part 2 - The new birth is a work of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will. Through the Spirit's mysterious work, we are made alive and brought forth into the kingdom of God.

And here's part 3 . . .

John 3:12-15 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life."

Jesus continues to lay out His credentials as an eyewitness of heavenly things, and He alludes to His earthly mission of saving sinners through His self-sacrifice on the cross. Like the bronze snake that was raised up to save sinners in Moses' day, Christ would soon be "lifted up" to remove the curse of sin from us. Jesus CAN do these things, and He does KNOW what He's talking about. The most intelligent sinner is at a radical disadvantage when approaching such a capable and wise King. Better to surrender to His Truth than insist upon our own understanding. But Nicodemus is not ready to surrender.

During this entire conversation, a form of the Greek verb DUNAMAI (to be able, have ability or power) is used repeatedly.

v. 2 ... no one can (DUNATAI) do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
v. 3 ... unless one is born again he cannot (DUNATAI) see the kingdom of God.”
v. 4 “How can (DUNATAI) a man be born when he is old?
v. 4 He cannot (DUNATAI) enter a second time into his mother’s womb ...
v. 5 ... unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot (DUNATAI) enter into the kingdom of God.
v. 9 “How can (DUNATAI) these things be?”

Incidentally, we get words like "dynamic" from the Greek word, DUNAMAI.

Notice how our Lord reveals this man's weakness to him. Jesus uses DUNAMAI twice, both times in the negative - CANNOT. He is describing what fallen man cannot do apart from the work of God. Faith agrees with this human impossibility, then looks to God to accomplish the work. Unbelief strives to do God's part for Him, and suffers from frustration or self-deception as a result. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency are inherent in the pharisaical mindset, and Jesus sets out to break them. He is leading somewhere - by grace, through faith.

Jesus adds one more point about Nicodemus' blindness. He tells Nicodemus that his unbelief concerning the "earthly things" is a barrier to receiving further revelation. How can one hope to understand the heavenly things, which are outside of man's natural frame of reference, if he does not believe the earthly things that are within easy reach? The heart of Nicodemus has not yet been awakened by the Spirit's work of regeneration, so he's not able to receive the message of the kingdom - yet.

It would appear that rather than trying to teach this blind Pharisee any particular facts about the kingdom of God, Jesus simply wants him to see how blind he is.

After verse 15, the conversation melts into a new section which may contain the rest of Jesus' words to Nicodemus, or it may be John's additional explanation of Jesus' mission for the sake of his readers. No one knows for sure. Either way, no further response from Nicodemus is recorded. He will re-appear later in the book of John . . .

John 7:50-51 Nicodemus (he who came to Him before, being one of them) said to them, “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?”

Here Nicodemus is found defending Jesus when his fellow Pharisees are viciously condemning Him. He had heard from Jesus, and perhaps by now he did know what He was doing. After this statement, the Pharisees turned on Nicodemus like starved rats, accusing him of perhaps being from the despised region where Jesus was raised.

John 19:39-40 Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.

After the crucifixion, Nicodemus donated a sizeable amount of expensive spices for the Lord's burial. He was not ashamed to associate with the disciples. This does not prove that he was a believer, but it seems to imply that he may have come to faith.

The working of the Spirit in a person's heart is like the blowing of the wind. We don't know where or when the wind will blow, and we do not know who will respond to the Gospel. One who resists the message today could be in the beginning stages of regeneration and become a believer tomorrow. That is God's business. Our business is to follow Christ's example of faithfully proclaiming the Word whenever and wherever we can.

Spiritual blindness can be cured. The prescription is the same for modern man as it was for Nicodemus: COME TO JESUS IN FAITH. This is our message, and it is what God commands, and it is what the Spirit enables sinners to do.

Impossible? Yes, but thanks be to God, it happens everyday.