Philosophy of Effort

What do you believe about human effort?  Should we, since we are not saved by works, therefore not put any effort into getting work done?  Or going just a little bit further, perhaps all human effort is inherently tainted by sin and therefore we should never do anything for God, but instead expect that all of Christian living and God’s kingdom on earth should be accomplished by Him without our participation?

It seems like the opinion that everything we do is sinful and worthless is very strong today. In this philosophy, humanity must allow God to build His church. The idea is that we are not able to help, and when we try we simply mess it up. For those who proclaim this message, I have this question.  Are you not doing a work by proclaiming this ideology?  Isn’t teaching, preaching, and instruction in practical application, tasks which require some degree of labor?

We need a better understanding of human effort in the kingdom of God. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:14, here quoted from the NASB.  “If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.” You will want to open your own Bible and explore the context of this verse, but the general idea is that God expects us to work, will test our work, and that those whose work survives the test will be rewarded.

So let me suggest a philosophy of effort.  We should work to do our best as Christians. This is not for the purpose of being saved, because we are all saved by grace. Instead our efforts are for purposes of bringing glory to God, most notably by building His kingdom.  Our efforts in this regard are only successful when done in cooperation with Him. Because He empowers these efforts, He gets all the credit for any success.

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Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Here is a barn swallow. The picture is fuzzy because of the speed of the bird, but you can still see the distinctive swallow tail, and some of the white highlights in his tail feathers. I enjoy watching these birds because of their highly aerobatic flights. They will zip in and out and around man-made structures with ease.

A couple of decades ago, I was birding alongside a pond in California when I noticed these birds doing mid-air stalls, followed by a flip turn and flight back in the direction they came from. In my mind I visualized the perfect picture this would provide as the bird stopped in mid-air for a fraction of a second with his feathers on both, wings and tail, spread fully apart showing the details most birders only get slight glimpses of. Unfortunately, this was before the age of digital cameras and it was impractical to keep trying to get the picture given the cost of film and developing after the first few failures.

A mid-air stall is when the bird turns to fly straight up, without flapping or continuing to propel himself forward. Pretty soon gravity overpowers momentum and the bird begins to fall backward. This is when he would effortlessly flip himself, flying back in the direction he came from.

There is that brief moment when gravity and flight are at odds with each other over the fate of the swallow. For just the briefest of moments it looks like gravity is going to win, but very quickly the truth is revealed. Gravity might have had a plan. It might have built up its own hopes of sending the bird splashing into the pond below. Those hopes were futile. The truth is, even when gravity was on the verge of defeating the bird, it was unknowingly serving the bird and its planned flight.

So it is with Christ in the crucifixion. Satan, sin and death all thought for a moment they were going to overwhelm God and His Son. They hoped to see His pathetic attachment to lowly humans to become His downfall. Since He was foolish enough to take on their weak and decaying flesh, they would use this loving choice against Him. Crucifixion was accomplished. Satan’s victory seemed to be assured.

Then came the resurrection, and the realization that Satan’s schemes served God’s will. It was our victory, not the devil’s, that was secured.

When this corruptible is clothed
with incorruptibility,
and this mortal is clothed
with immortality,
then the saying that is written will take place:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Death, where is your victory?
Death, where is your sting?
Now the sting of death is sin,
and the power of sine is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory
through our  Lord Jesus  Christ!

1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (HCSB)

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.

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.

The Philosophy of Children’s Ministry

What you believe about people in general and specifically about children is important.

I am thinking about children this week because it is Vacation Bible School week in our church. For several weeks, from the beginning of decorating to the end of follow up, we make everything in the church center on kids. All of this special attention to children reflects a theological perspective that says they are important.

It is easy to see that Jesus thought children were important, by the statements He makes in regard to kids. For example, He says it would be better for a man to be drowned than to face the judgement from making a child stumble. (Luke 17:1-4)

But the question I want to ask this morning is, why are children important?

I believe children are important because of the way in which growing up impacts the decision making capability of adults. This is why, in the passage named above, Jesus spoke of making kids stumble. He could have used other phrases to indicate harming children or causing them pain, but He instead chose wording which addressed hindering their progress.

This is important because the way a child is raised can determine if they will ever be open to accepting Christ as Savior. It can determine whether they are predisposed towards obeying the law or breaking it. Jesus knows that events in childhood shape the nature of the adult.

But beyond this rather obvious truth, I also believe many people will only have the child like faith needed to trust Christ when they are children. If we do not handle them correctly at this age, then they will never again consider the opportunity to know and serve the Lord.

The worldly perspective on raising children often gets this backwards. They put a great deal of emphasis on protecting kids from physical pain, but pay very little attention to the influences put on them.

Society has decided that discipline through pain is always wrong. I am glad I didn’t grow up today. I think I would be less of a man now if I had not received a few spankings then. The world will ignore my testimony, and the opinions of thousands of others like me, in favor of raising undisciplined kids.

What they pay little attention to, is who influences kids and in what direction. Ideas that are likely objectionable to parents are taught to children without oversight. These lessons come from public education, popular entertainment, and political activity. The world has begun to treat these sources as incontestable.

Similar to this, many assert that children cannot be influenced in meaningful ways until they become adults. This perspective results in individuals assuming they can raise kids neutrally in order to allow them to make their own decisions when they are old enough. This is too late.

The end result is we miss the only chance we have to shape adults, because we believed the wrong things about them as children.

Doctrine of Commitment

Commitment is a sleeper. It’s a central part of our lives, and should also be a central part of our theology. Yet I call it a sleeper because it is seldom considered with the full depth it deserves.

Commitment is the central component of love. Many people will argue in favor of the emotional components of love, but emotions waver and it’s our commitment that carries us through those times.

Commitment is the heart of our salvation, first and foremost, God’s commitment to us. Chesed, is a Hebrew word expressing God’s love for us based on His commitment. Xaris, is a Greek word for grace expressing God’s commitment to us despite the fact we could never earn it or deserve it. (Studying individual words for commitment could go much, much further.)

We make a commitment back to God in the moment of salvation. We make a commitment to God to turn our lives around both in terms of repenting, turning away from sin, and discipleship, following the ways of Christ.

Living the Christian life also includes making commitments.

Christians commit themselves to a church family, in order to find a place to grow and opportunities to serve. This commitment to the local church is the subject of a great deal of spiritual warfare. People are easily driven away because they fail to see the church experience as an expression of their commitment to God, and instead get distracted by their relationships with one another. These believers always become spiritually stunted and useless to God’s kingdom work.

The fact that Satan chooses to focus his attack on our commitment to the local church is evidence of how important this commitment is.

So commitment is a sleeper. It is both the heart of our relationship with God, the focus point of satanic attack in our walk with God, and the point where the most failures occur in Christian growth.

Doctrine of Israel

What do you believe about Israel? Given current world events I believe this is a very relevant point of theology. Yes, world events and theology should and do affect one another. In fact, they must interact in order for theology to be either true or relevant.

So here goes.

I believe God chose a man named Abraham to begin His kingdom restoration work on earth. I don’t say it was the start of His kingdom building, since God always had one intent and therefore it started with Adam. However at the time in history when Abraham was alive, the world needed a restoration work, we had fallen so far away from the God that created us, that we needed a God who would reach out to us.

He chose Abraham to start this work and several promises were made to Abraham which are still important today.

He promised Abraham to make a nation out of his descendants. This is the Jewish people. Many of the promises made to Abraham were to include the nation descended from him. It is true Abraham fathered another nation through Ishmael, and that specific promises were given to this son, but those promises were given separately and Ishmael did not inherit the promises passed down to the Hebrews.

One of the promises is that God would bless the entire world through the Jews. I believe this promise was fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ. In God’s plan the kingdom restoring work suddenly expanded beyond the Jews and a few converts to be available to all the earth.

I do not believe that Christianity on earth constitutes a new Israel. We have been grafted into the Israel that existed, and have not replaced it. Nor do I believe that every Jewish person is saved automatically. They must find their salvation, just as we do, in Jesus Christ.

Another promises is God would bless those that bless Israel and curse those who treat Israel with contempt. I believe this promise is still in effect and applies to the modern nation of Israel.

This is why I believe the topic is currently relevant. The United States has been backing away from every action which God previously blessed us for taking. We no longer honor Him, we are quickly losing our missionary power, we are no longer standing against tyranny, and now as a final straw we are no longer supporting Israel.

You can expect God to bring about some changes as a result.