Immutable God

I believe that God is relational. But the details of God being in relationship with humanity can be confusing. For example we think of God as being perfectly consistent. We even have a fancy theological word for this, immutability. Unfortunately relationships are never perfectly consistent, absolute consistency is far from perfect, and for that matter immutability doesn’t mean what many of us think it means.

We tend to picture God’s immutability as a strict set of rules down the order of, “if we do this, He’ll do that.” Or to put that another way, we want to formulate God. For too many people their entire spirituality is a series of observations about God and His past choices, assuming He will make the same choice every time a similar situation arises.

A boy steals a candy bar. His mom catches him, and punishes him. The child then believes that God will punish every thief. (When we do this, God will do that.) Being able to formulate God’s choices like this is only useful if you are looking for ways to manipulate or control Him.

The truth is that relationships disallow this kind of formulation. People who are in a relationship have to deal not only with variations in their own preferences and choices but also with these variations in the other person. God has a right to respond to the same situation in different ways at different times and with different people, just like we do.

God is immutable in that His character in unchanging, in that His purposes never waver and in that He remains absolutely sovereign. But these facts don’t change the reality that he might react one way the first three times you do something and then choose another reaction on the fourth. God may choose to draw a person to salvation with a heavy hand, or choose another person for some highly significant role in the kingdom, while clearly not doing the same for all people.

This is not inconsistency in God, it is just God expressing His sovereignty. He knew exactly what He would do in every case before history began, that is an expression of His immutability. This is not God being unfair, it is God being God.

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The Impact of Foreknowledge

Foreknowledge is an interesting twist, doctrinally speaking. It changes things to know God does not have to wait to see what we do and then react to it. Instead He knows what is going to happen before it does. Therefore He doesn’t consider anything as it happens but whatever decisions He makes, were made in advance.

Some assume that since God knew what would happen in advance, He must also have made all the decisions. I don’t believe this logically follows. All of us who have been parents have known at times what our children were going to do before they did it. Perhaps by the look on their face, an established pattern, or perhaps a lack of experience, but however we knew, we knew. Many of those times we decided how we would respond before the child took the action. Why can’t we believe that God does the same thing, except much, much better?

Others understand that God can choose His reaction to our choices in advance without making every decision for us, but believe that we are incapable of making the most important decisions. Specifically, they believe that no man can choose Christ, and instead Christ chooses us. But I think that to believe this you have to ignore the importance of the concept of foreknowledge at the times the word is used in Scripture.

If I recall correctly the word appears four times in the New Testament. Acts 2:23 talking about God’s plan to redeem us in Christ. Romans 8:29 where he is describing the predestined. Romans 11:2 referring to His relationship with Israel. And finally in 1 Peter 1:2 while describing the chosen.

Three of four uses of the word then are directly related to God making choices and how His foreknowledge played into the decision. If God determined who would be saved then it would make sense that the Bible would describe His decision making prior to His foreknowledge or perhaps leave foreknowledge out of the picture completely. But if His foreknowledge is described preceding His decision making, then it would seem that what He is saying is He was responding in some manner to our decision, specifically our decision to receive His offer of salvation.

As I said three of four uses of the word combine foreknowledge and God’s choices. Two of these have His foreknowledge mentioned as the basis for His decisions and actions. Romans 8:29 does this by setting up a series that moves from foreknowledge to predestination to calling to justification to glorification. In 1 Peter 1:2 He describes his choice as being according to His foreknowledge. So both of these verses strike me as saying God was responding to something about us. He chose how He would respond before the event actually happened, but foreknowledge allows this possibility.

The other verse that combines foreknowledge and God’s choice of actions puts His choice first, mentioning it prior to His foreknowledge. This is Acts 2:23, where He is describing his decision to have Jesus die for us on the cross. In this case it makes sense to mention the decision first because He is referring to His own decision making rather than His advance knowledge of someone else’s decision. He chose to redeem us and then held to His knowledge of His own plan.

I’d be happy to hear your ideas on my analysis, as long as they are civil. But it appears to me that understanding election, God’s choice, or predestination requires that we also evaluate foreknowledge.

Love and Free Will

One of the truisms I use every now and then is that love only means something when it is freely given.

If I were talking about how a man won his wife’s heart you would be relatively easy to convince. It might be true that a young man wants to believe he won his wife, that he found a way to make her love him. But as a man ages he will quickly admit, happily admit, that it is more important that she chooses to love him. In fact, a man who wants to force his wife to love him, regardless of her will, would be considered manipulative at best or more likely downright dangerous.

But since I am talking theology instead of romance I expect a little more resistance, especially from those who embrace Calvinism or reformed theology. This perspective believes that men can play no role in their own salvation, that men cannot make any choice whether they will love God.

For these individuals, God’s sovereignty answers every question. He has absolute authority and therefore he can choose in advance who will be saved apart from their personal choices or activities. His Sovereignty allows Him to have it all: He can choose for men to sin, He can condemn them for this same sin, and He can choose to redeem others. Under this system He would have it all, except He would not have anyone who willingly, freely chose to love Him. Love only means something when it is freely given.

This choice is what I believe we were made for. We were created to give us the opportunity to freely choose a relationship with God. In order to allow this possibility, to allow for this greatest good to be a potentiality, He gave us free will. He knew we would uniformly choose sin, but He allowed the rebellion of sin because it became the path to the greater good. This greater good, or even greatest good, I speak of is the freely given love of those who would also choose His gift of redemption from sin.

 

Convenient Mystery

A person should consider us in this way: as servants of Christ and managers of God’s mysteries. 1 Corinthians 4:1 (HCSB)

This passage refers to mysteries. I agree that there are going to be things about God that are over our heads. Things too wonderful for the human mind to comprehend. These things we rather easily dismiss as God’s mysteries.

A long while back I was listening to a person present a theological viewpoint, which I happened to disagree with. He proceeded to try and force me to spiritually say uncle and admit he was smarter than I, by showing me verse after verse that he said backed up his point of view. I don’t know if they did or didn’t since he wouldn’t slow down enough to let me think about each. People who are sure they are right and intelligent apparently don’t need to slow down to think.

When he finally come up for air I put a verse in front of him, just one, which I took the time to explain. This verse didn’t back up my perspective so much as it contradicted his. I asked him to reconcile his belief with this verse. He replied the gospel will always contain some things that are mysteries to us.

That was when it occurred to me, we tend to define ourselves by what we believe. We use terms like evangelical, Christological, Biblical, fundamental, and reformed to categorize and characterize what we think. But you might sometimes learn as much if we could define what we are satisfied leaving as mysteries.

Perhaps not always, but at least sometimes what we choose to call mysteries are those things we simply don’t want to deal with. Perhaps they interfere with our favorite doctrinal stands. Perhaps they scare us in their implications. Or perhaps they make us feel stupid.

I conjecture that one day in eternity, when we have had millions of years to figure out the truth, theology will all fit together in one coherent and cohesive system. There may still be mysteries, but if there are it will be because those ideas elude us by being more than our minds can hold. Those mysteries will not be hiding places where we huddle up to protect ourselves, emotionally and spiritually, from unwanted truth.

Did you notice the verse quoted above is spoken in the context that Paul and his co-workers were managers of revealing God’s mysteries? They were teachers of truth, not protectors hiding truth safely away somewhere.

Thinking about Work

 

Today I found myself thinking about works. What really constitutes works? At what point does our responding to God become works? Ephesians 2:8-10 makes some strong statements about works.

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 KJV)

The first use of the word works is in verse 9. It is there to tell us that we are not saved by works. I know people who are busy trying to balance a cosmic scale, scrambling furiously to do good works, hoping their good works will outweigh their bad works in the final judgement. This passage makes it clear that trying to balance the scales is working the wrong plan. Our positive actions do not weigh against our negative actions so the plan is doomed.

We are saved by grace, rather than by positive works. God has offered us a gift of salvation. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty we owed for our own sins, and has offered this salvation to us if we are willing to receive it, by faith, as a gift.

But here is where theologians muddy the water. Many define receiving a gift as work. Furthermore, they would say, since humanity without Christ is described as dead in the previous context of Ephesians 2, dead men cannot do anything to bring themselves back to life. Therefore they believe God gives the gift to whomever He chooses and without any involvement by the receiver.

Let me step through some of the reasons why I agree with so much of this logic and yet arrive at different conclusions. First let me address the argument, dead men cannot bring themselves back to life. I would say amen. They cannot, and they do not. Jesus brings us back to life when we are declared forgiven, and not only forgiven, but also righteous in God’s sight. God does the work of redemption inside of the believer, we do not do it ourselves.

Being spiritually dead is a Biblical word picture. It is like being physically alive, but spiritually useless. The lost person is useless to God because of their sinful condition. It is not that they are incapable of doing anything, they spend every day doing something, but these things are of no importance, eternally speaking.

Jesus is offering to replace this useless, perpetual death with a very useful, eternal life. It is His gift offered to us, and like all gifts, one doesn’t have it, until they receive it. A gift we refuse or ignore, we do not get. As mentioned above, many people argue, if we actively cooperate in receiving the gift, such would constitute a work.

I disagree. If a man is to be given a wonderful gift, one they could never acquire on their own, he is not given credit for some brilliant accomplishment upon receiving the gift. All praise for the accomplishment goes to the giver. God gets all the praise for our redemption. Our willingness to receive what He sacrificed so dearly to provide is also to His credit. The receiver neither deserves nor gets any glory. The work of the accomplishment is not in accepting it as a gift, but in the sacrifice that secured it and the grace in desiring to give it.

Thinking, making mental choices, is not work. Following through on the choice might be work, but in this case it is Jesus who followed through, humanity is simply the recipients of the offer. Those who are willing to receive the gift are the redeemed, but not by any merit or work of their own, but by the activity, grace and glory of Christ.

I believe this moment of decision on our part is necessary for many reasons.

Without it there is no relationship in our relationship with Christ, we are only puppets doing whatever God chose for us to do. At least, up to the moment where He gives us Salvation.

Without this moment of decision humanity is essentially given enough free will to do wrong, but not to do right, meaning God is holding them accountable for actions they had no ability to avoid.

Without this freedom to choose, humanities love or God is never freely given and love is only possible when it is freely given.

Without this choice to receive on our part, 1 Timothy 2:4 as well as every other verses referring to God’s desire to reach the whole world, don’t make sense.

Homosexuality in the Bible

I am a white, male, evangelical Christian; no one cares if I am offended. Yet I want to address one of the most offensive things I have seen lately, the publicity for the Queen James Bible. It is touted on Facebook right now as a new attack by liberals on Christianity.

That is not exactly true, looking on Amazon you can see that this corruption of Scripture was released back in 2012, so it’s not new. Nor does it appear to be an organized attack. It is nothing more than one person’s attempt to promulgate their lifestyle and to profiteer from other people’s foolishness.

I wish Christians wouldn’t fall for misinformation so easily. But more so, I wish the lost world would not fall for the lies that lead to whitewashing sin and to eternal separation from God.

What I referred to as highly offensive was not the exaggerations about the book presented on Facebook, the most offensive thing was the lies told in the sound bites promoting the book. Here is an exact quote.

Homosexuality was first mentioned in the Bible in 1946, in the Revised Standard Version. There is no mention of or reference to homosexuality in any Bible prior to this – only interpretations have been made.

So they would have us to believe that up until then the Bible was either silent on homosexuality or in favor of it. This is a blatant lie, empowered by the fact that his intended audience would not take the time to check the details.

Let me tell you the truth, with some easily verifiable facts. The King James Bible was produced in 1611. This of course means it was written in old English. It is generally sold with updated language, so that the 1611 spellings are highly unlikely to be what you find in a local library or bookstore.

In the original wording, without any updates Romans 1:24 ff is very clear, even if it is in old English. Homosexuality is a sin, and it is a sin that grows out of rejecting God and which brings about appropriate consequences. (Here is a link that will allow you to search any passage in the 1611 King James.) Here is the exact copy.

24Wherefore God also gaue them vp to vncleannesse, through the lusts of their owne hearts, to dishonour their owne bodies betweene themselues:
25 Who changed the trueth of God into a lye, and worshipped and serued the creature more then the Creatour, who is blessed for euer. Amen.
26 For this cause God gaue them vp vnto vile affections: for euen their women did change the naturall vse into that which is against nature:
27 And likewise also the men, leauing the naturall vse of the woman, burned in their lust one towards another, men with men working that which is vnseemely, and receiuing in themselues that recompense of their errour which was meet.
28 And euen as they did not like to retaine God in their knowledge, God gaue them ouer to a reprobate minde, to doe those things which are not conuenient:

 

The passage doesn’t use the word homosexuality, but it describes homosexual behavior clearly, and there is no honest way to say this passage does not condemn the behavior. People who are justifying their sin do not mind lying about what the Bible says. In essence they are described here as the ones who “changed the truth of God into a lie.” In this case they went so far as to rewrite the Bible.

God created humanity in such a way that we all make our own choices, and pay the price for our choices. One of the most offensive things I can imagine is lying to people about the consequences of their actions.

A Doctrine of Marriage

Marriage seems to be the topic of the day, so perhaps it’s time to examine what we believe about marriage.

First, marriage is the oldest institution. It is older than the existence of countries, older than the existence of law, and it is the foundation of family. Since it is the first building block of family, marriage is essential for the continuation of humanity. For this reason it is a bedrock piece of the foundations of civilization.

Another word about the continuation of civilized society through marriage: I believe children born in healthy marriages have the best chance for success. Children raised without an example of both a father and a mother in the home are more likely to have certain struggles in life, including an unhealthy view of marriage, sexuality, and family. In this manner, unhealthy views of marriage and family can grow worse with each generation if not given boundaries.

God has a right to give us input on marriage and did so. There are Old Testament passages which address marriage as being between one man and one woman. There are examples of marriage between one man and multiple women, but I don’t believe these are examples to follow. I also believe the New Testament reaffirms marriage as being between one man and one woman. In Romans 1:24 and following is a very clear statement that same sex relationships are wrong, therefore I do not believe in homosexual marriage.

I personally am not surprised by the actions of government recently to legally redefine marriage. What I am more concerned about is the likelihood that what comes next will be the government mandating to the citizens of the country and to churches actions of acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage.

I do not believe it best for our country to have gay marriage, but I believe it is absolutely disastrous for our country to begin dictating religious belief or behavior to the citizenry. Nevertheless, Christians were warned by Jesus to expect the world to conflict with us. Marriage is the current battleground in these conflicts.

But, let me be as clear as I can. If Christians had been diligent in resisting the multitude of sinful attacks on healthy Biblical sexuality, the sanctity of marriage, and the importance of family, then the battle lines would never have progressed this far.

The Life Left Behind

Jimmy watched the waves. In his memory he was surfing. In his heart he was a surfer.

But now he was a seminary student, having given his life to Christ just two years earlier. He made a commitment to the Lord to do anything God called him to do. This bold commitment had been followed by a definitive call to preach.

So the surfer boy put away his boards and started taking classes in Bible, theology, and church administration. Yet his faith and his calling didn’t change his identity, they had added to it.

Almost every day he stopped to watch the waves though, because somewhere in his heart he was a surfer. It was the life left behind, but it never stopped being who he was.

When he surfed every day he had almost never talked to his dad. Now they talked daily and his father tells him he is proud of him.

The water is calm today. Good surfing for the smallest of children and beginners, but tomorrow changing weather will bring bigger waves.

He won’t be surfing them though, he will be in his class discussing the doctrine of eternal security. It rubbed him the wrong way. People can knowingly, purposefully stop serving God and still be safe in God’s care?

A young man and his son was entering the water now. The older teaching the younger to balance and steer the board. This made Jimmy think of his father again, although his father had never surfed. His father was a marine, not a surfer. Once a marine, always a marine. His father says that all the time.

The corps had changed his father forever. Some changes are like that. The old man couldn’t stop being a marine if he tried, just like Jimmy couldn’t stop being a surfer. And Christians can’t stop being Christians. You can’t undo God’s work, or the life experience.

Jimmy climbed back in his car and prepared to head to class. He thanked God for a little better understanding of theology.

It was time to make his father proud.

It was time to make his Father proud.

 

It is a busy time in ministry, with Vacation Bible School quickly approaching.  So I am posting less and sometimes reusing posts. The above story was my entry for both Thursday 360 and Christian Flash Weekly. Check them both out if you are interested in reading or writing Christian flash fiction.

The Authority Issue

We live in a country with authority issues, and it’s not just a psychological or social problem. It’s also a spiritual issue. In fact, one could easily think of it as the most foundational of all theological problems, because everything else you believe theologically is subjected to and under the dictates of the authority issue.

Simply defined the authority issue is the question, who or what do you trust? What sources of information do you consider authoritative and what sources do you automatically distrust.

Who or what you choose to trust shapes everything else you think you know and choose to believe. Think about the current state of the press in America. Some people follow Fox News, and others believe CNBC. Some don’t trust either, but in all three cases, how they place their trust shapes their view of the world.

When one has not developed a capacity to choose the correct authorities to trust, they have all kinds of problems in life. Distrust the police and you have rioting in the streets. Trust into strangers and you will be stolen from. Theologically speaking putting trust in the wrong things has much the same results. Misplaced trust allows the devil to keep you spiritually angry, as well as to lie to you and steal from you.

Some people believe affirm that they trust God and believe they have settled the issue, but this decision only scratches the surface. Now you have to decide how God speaks to you. How God speaks, whether it is through a certain person, a church structure, or personal experience, then becomes the heart of your authority issue.

As a Baptist and Evangelical, my easy answer is that God speaks through the Bible. This would be a great answer, if people would only read it for themselves. Unfortunately most of us do not interact with Scripture independently, so the authority issue is not done. It continues with the question, who do we trust to interpret the Bible for us?

For some people it is a matter of trusting their pastor, or perhaps whoever is standing in their pulpit on a given Sunday. For others it is a favorite Bible teacher. For many it is anyone that agrees with a specific theological perspective. While all of these are not necessarily bad, they are likely to be the manner in which we get lazy with our theology, letting someone else think for us and decide for us what ideas to accept and reject. That is a lot of spiritual power and theological control to give away lightly.

We would better off to keep a constant eye on our own authority issue, so as to keep control of, and take personal responsibility for, what we believe.

Discipline

Discipline should be a trait of a disciple.

Discipline, as in self-control, is necessary to choose the shape of your own behavior. Without it, one cannot control their own choices, walk a path of repentance, nor follow the Lord.

Some would undoubtedly say, you can’t do any of those things anyway, that the human form is incapable of doing anything good. I agree the human form is frail, and incapable of leaving sin completely behind. We should reconcile ourselves to never being perfect.

But this fact does not mean we should not strive to do better, nor that we cannot do better. I distrust the definitions of Christian living which say either, our sinfulness glorifies God by allowing Him to give us more grace, or that our grace means sin is no longer relevant to us. Paul addresses both of these misconceptions in Romans 6.

Instead I view grace as most relevant in salvation. But discipleship, our growth after salvation is a partnership between us and God. Our obedience glorifies Him.

So consider the importance of discipline to the Christ follower.

Discipline is one of the benefits of fasting, discipline is necessary for the taming of the mind and body to the instructions of Christ, and discipline is required to replenish the storeroom of the heart with the things of God.