Friday, September 25, 2009

The Incredible Universe

Some time ago an article appeared in the National Geographic entitled "The Incredible Universe," by Kenneth F. Weaver and James P. Blair. It included this paragraph:
How can the human mind deal with the knowledge that the farthest object we can see in the universe is perhaps ten billion light years away! Imagine that the thickness of this page represents the distance from the earth to the sun (93,000,000 miles, or about eight light minutes). Then the distance to the nearest star (14-1/3 light years) is a 71-foot-high stack of paper. And the diameter of our own galaxy (l00,000 light years) is a 310-mile stack, while the edge of the known universe is not reached until the pile of paper is 31,000,000 miles high, a third of the way to the sun.

As incredible as the universe is, what's more amazing is that God created it all with the power of His Word. And what's even more amazing is that we can know this God personally. The Creator is our Redeemer. This is what He says:
"With my own hands I founded the earth, with my right hand I formed the expanse of sky; when I summoned them, they sprang at once into being..." Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, "I am the Lord your God, I teach you for your own advantage and lead you in the way you must go. If only you had listened to my commands, your prosperity would have rolled on like a river in flood and your righteousness like the waves of the sea..." (Isaiah 48:13, 17, 18, NEB).

The God who has rescued us in our rebellion is the commanding presence in the universe. Nothing disproves him. Rather, everything reveals his glory. The prosperity (i.e., peace) we know in Him is not seasonal, but perpetual. And His righteousness covers our sin again and again like the waves of the sea.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Truth and Power

An astute friend pointed out a concern about my reference to John Wesley's "heart strangely warmed" experience at the point of his conversion. Here is a quote he passed along from How Wide the Divide? a Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation by Craig Blomberg and Stephen Edward Robinson:
"Joseph [Smith] confessed a greater affinity for Methodism than Presbyterian or Baptist thought prior to his supposed encounter with God (Joseph Smith History 2:5-Il). Is it a coincidence that Mormonism subsequently turned out to be closer to Methodism than to its Protestant competitors on a whole host of doctrines, from denying the major tenets of Calvinism (predestination, original sin, eternal security) to affirming the strong call for holiness and moral perfection? Even the testimony of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, that he found his heart “strangely warmed” at his conversion is reminiscent of Mormonism’s “burning in the bosom.” None of these were issues that concerned the ancient Jews or Central Americans who populate the pages of the Book of Mormon, but they all fit the religious climate of nineteenth-century North America very readily."

There are problems with both Methodist and Mormon theology. Some of them are mentioned in the quote. However, there is a difference between a genuine conviction of the Holy Spirit and a "burning in the bosom."
An example of the former would be what happened during Jesus' exposition of Scripture on the road to Emmaus in which he explained to Cleopas and another disciple that all of the Old Testament reveals God's redeeming work through himself. Afterward, they said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" (Luke 24:32)
Another example would be on the day of Pentecost. The apostle Peter preached to the crowd that had gathered about Jesus' death and resurrection. When he pointed out (twice) that those present were culpable in Jesus' death "they were cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37).
The disciples hearts "burned within them." The Jews were "cut to the heart." In both examples, people are moved viscerally by the truth of Scripture. But notice that it is based on the objective truth of Scripture, not just a subjective feeling. Now back to John Wesley and Joseph Smith. My contention would be that one of these was a genuine conviction of the Holy Spirit (in Wesley's case) and one false (in Smith's case). One was brought about by the truth of the gospel being expounded from Romans. In this case a subjective feeling was based on objective truth. Mormons reverse this, basing truth on subjective feelings. Potential converts are coached to suspend judgment concerning theological or historical problems with Mormonism until they receive the appropriate "testimony" or emotional confirmation of the "truth" of Mormon doctrine.
This leads to subjective interpretations of Scripture that very often depart from the historic Christian faith. R. C. Sproul gives some helpful instruction on how to avoid this in Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (pp. 27-28):
Subjectivism has been the great danger of private interpretation...Believers are free to discover the truths of Scripture, but they are not free to fabricate their own truth. Believers are called to understand sound principles of interpretation and to avoid the danger of subjectivism.
In seeking an objective understanding of Scripture we do not thereby reduce Scripture to something cold, abstract, and lifeless. What we are doing is seeking to understand what the Word says in its context before we go about the equally necessary task of applying it to our lives. A particular statement may have numerous possible personal applications, but it can only have one correct meaning.

Notice that we do not "reduce Scripture to something cold, abstract, and lifeless." It is a living document. It cuts as well as heals. It is truth and it is power. As I said on Sunday, Christianity is the intersection of truth and power. The Bible never pits objective truth against subjective reality, truth against the spirit. In fact, there is no Spirit power without truth, for the job of the Spirit is to take truths about Jesus and make them vivid, glorious and affecting to our hearts (John 16:13-14). The Spirit gives us power by making the truth of God shine and empower us. As Tim Keller states:
We can think of the Spirit as "fire," but the truth of God's Word as "firewood." Without both wood and fire, you don't have a fire!

We need both.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Heart Strangely Warmed

On May 24, 1738, John Wesley famously attended a meeting of the Moravian society in Aldergate Street which lead to his understanding and embracing the gospel for the first time. Here is a description of that evening from Wesley's journal:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

If you haven't ever read Luther's Preface to Romans that Wesley refers to in his journal, I recommend that you take the time to do so. Here is how it begins.
This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. Therefore I want to carry out my service and, with this preface, provide an introduction to the letter, insofar as God gives me the ability, so that every one can gain the fullest possible understanding of it. Up to now it has been darkened by glosses and by many a useless comment, but it is in itself a bright light, almost bright enough to illumine the entire Scripture.

The full text can be found here. Then take Luther's advise and dive into the book of Romans yourself.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Seeing Jesus

I received an email from Paul Miller this morning. Paul is the executive director of seeJesus, a ministry that produces some great small group material. Paul's passion for people to see Jesus comes out as he describes a meeting he had with some seminary professors:
This summer I took two seminary professors that I know to lunch and asked them, “Has the church missed studying the person of Jesus? I know of only three books or articles in the last 500 years that have thoughtfully studied what Jesus is like as a person.” After about an hour discussion one said, “Yes, I guess it slipped through a crack.” At which point I about jumped out of my chair, “A crack?! It is a huge hole! How could we have missed something so fundamental?”

Then I read this from Charles Spurgeon's Morning and Evening:
This morning we must endeavor to ascend the mount of communion, that there we may be ordained to the lifework for which we are set apart. Let us not see the face of man to-day till we have seen Jesus. Time spent with Him is laid out at blessed interest. We too shall cast out devils and work wonders if we go down into the world girded with that divine energy which Christ alone can give. It is of no use going to the Lord's battle till we are armed with heavenly weapons. We must see Jesus, this is essential.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Root and Fruit

We're going through Romans on Wednesday night at Redlands Community Church (our new church home). Ken Boodhoo and Jerry Frye are doing a great job walking us through this monumental book. When we got to chapter 2 verses 6-10 we were somewhat puzzled. Here's what it says:
God "will give to each person according to what he has done." To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

Our question was this: Is this a contradiction of being "saved by grace through faith...not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works" (Ephesians 2:8-9)?
We need to give Paul some credit. He isn't into contradicting himself. Tim Keller in his study on Romans, explains.
Paul [in the above verses] is dealing with good works as the test on the day of judgment, NOT good works as the basis of salvation with God. A good way to illustrate the difference is--the apples on an apple tree prove life, but they don't provide life. The apples are the test that the tree is alive, but it is the roots which pull in nourishment. In the same way, faith in Christ alone provides new life (brings it in from God), but a changed life of righteousness is what proves we have real faith.

So how do we know if our heart is right with God or not?
Verse 7 gives tests that indicate a person is right with God: "persistence in doing good" means that doing good and living well has become a persistent pattern; "seeking glory, honor and immortality" means that these qualities that come from life with God. The person who is right with God does not do good deeds for their own sake. He or she wants to become a particular kind of person--one like God.
Verse 8 gives tests that indicate a person is not right with God: "self-seeking" is the tell-tale sign. It means to have a spirit of self-will, or self-glorification. This is something that can be pursured either through being irreligious and licentious, or through being moral and religious and upright; "rejecting the truth and follow evil" means that there is an unwillingness to be instructed and to learn from God's truth. A lack of teachability, a refusal to submit to truth outside one's own convictions and heart [shows that one is not right with God.]