Sunday, July 20, 2014

Love = Holiness

In my previous post, I attempted to show from Scripture that in many ways, practical holiness involves living in love: sacrificial concern for the good of others that trumps concern for yourself.  It's living as God lives, holy as he is holy.  In other words, "holiness" equals love.

At the same time, the reverse is also true: "love" equals holiness, that is, living life under God's rule and under his law and promises and bearing God's likeness in the world.  If we live lives of love as "imitators of God" walking in Christlike love (Ephesians 5:1), then that means we aren't living like other people do; our love is to be holy as the Lord is holy (1 Peter 1:16).

While hippies waved banners about "free love," real Christian love is generous and costly.  It embodies grace and gives to others when they're undeserving.  Jesus said that love for one another and the world would be the mark of his disciples (John 13:34-35; 15:9-13).  And yet this same Jesus-styled love would cause the world to hate his disciples because it reminds them of him (John 15:18-25).  So there must be something inherently un-worldly about the way we are to love others.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Holiness = Love

In our effort to preach and live out the inclusive, merit-discrediting grace of God that welcomes real sinners into his glad home, it's easy to wonder what place things like holiness and obedience and God's law have in our lives as Christians.  But Scripture lays out two very clear truths: God's grace cannot be turned into license to sin (Romans 6:1-2, 15; Jude 4), and the chief virtue is love (Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10).  We cannot whitewash God's call to holiness by saying, "It's all about love," but neither can we live out our holiness in isolation.  So what does biblical holiness look like?

The more and more I read the Bible and learn what holiness is--that is, living as one separated from the world to belong to Christ and live for his purposes, to beat with his heartbeat--I learn that living a holy life is living a life of love.  Our holiness consists in living the way Jesus did in sacrificial, compassionate, otherworldly care for others.

"As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I [the Lord] am holy.'" (1 Peter 1:14-15, quoting Leviticus 11:44)

So we are to be imitators of God, following him in his holiness.  But does that mean a life of monasticism?  Self-flagellation?  A doctorate in theology?  Only listening to "positive Christian radio" and watching Kirk Cameron movies?  Teetotalling?

"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."  (Ephesians 5:1)

You see, being an imitator of God, being holy as he is holy, means to "walk in love."  That is, we live in love for others in daily, step-by-step reliance on the love our Father has for us.  (Note that in both imperatives, Christians are called God's beloved children.)

"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." (Colossians 3:12-14)

"Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again ..." (1 Peter 1:22-23).

If we are to live as those "chosen by God, holy and beloved," those who have "purified [our] souls," the clear command is to love others the way Jesus loved us.  (Heck, just skip the rest of this post and read all of 1 John.  Then read this book if you're ready to be humbled.)

If holiness involves both belonging to God for his purposes and being unstained by sin, then I think the Holy Spirit wants us to recognize that sin's core ugliness involves self-worship and self-concern that keeps us from seeking others' interests and good ahead of our own.  To be freed from the pollution of sin and really live in holiness is to live less and less with our own cares and needs in mind and look instead to how we can do lasting good to others.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Hymn that Makes Me Cry (Almost)

This afternoon at church, we sang several amazing songs (including "Be Still, My Soul" by Katharina von Schlegel).  But our closing hymn was the one that almost always brings tears to my eyes (inasmuch as that happens for me): "For All the Saints" by William How.

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear their one true Light.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

But lo!  There breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

More than any other, I want this hymn sung at my funeral (preferably in Christopher Miner's tune, but I'll take Sine Nomine).  If songs about Jesus as Victor get my hands raised and my feet a-stompin', then it is songs about Jesus' faithfulness in leading his church to her eternal bliss in the news heavens and earth that bring a quiver to my lips.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Why We're Not Baptizing Our Children (Yet)

While on the phone with my mom a few weeks ago, she asked us again why we belonged to a Presbyterian church which baptizes infants, but we ourselves have not had our son baptized.*  I hope to explain here why I've chosen this path for our family.  I realize this is a huge issue that cannot be covered in a few paragraphs, but here's my best attempt to briefly explain it.  And I write this with great humility--I am fallible and could be wrong--and with great respect for the Reformed heritage and for my brothers and sisters in Christ at URC and City Church of Richmond.

What is the Presbyterian doctrine?

Presbyterian and Reformed churches see baptism as the equivalent of circumcision, which was applied to children to show their status within the Abrahamic covenant.  Start by reading Genesis 12, 15, and 17 to get a picture of God’s promises to Abraham.

Circumcision was the “sign of the covenant” God gave to Abraham (Genesis 17:11 ESV).  It served as a sign (visible representation) of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham and his offspring.  It was also a seal confirming the reality of this covenant relationship and God’s vow to “be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7; cf. Romans 4:11).  Circumcision signified inner spiritual renewal and cleansing (Isaiah 52:1), as well as the need to live consecrated to God--or else one too would be cursed and “cut off” from life under God’s blessing (Genesis 17:14).  Through bloodshed it prefigured the bloody judgment of Christ that would ultimately earn this spiritual renewal and cleansing for God’s people.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Of Bills and Babies: Hope for Parents Concerned about Money

Good news: Olivia is pregnant with our second child, due in November!

Of course, this leads me to always wonder how on earth we're going to support a second (or someday third, fourth, ... ) child.  This would require some major restructuring of our work situations, child care, etc.  God clearly has something up his sleeve for us in the future.  (Frankly, I hope it's money for a heat pump.  Two hundred dollars per month for heating oil is killer.)

But to still my anxious heart, God has lovingly been reminding me of Psalm 37:25-26 again and again.  Not that I ever intentionally memorized it, but it has somehow come to my memory almost every day for the past few weeks:

I have been young, and now am old,
     yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
     or his children begging for bread.
He is ever lending generously,
     and his children become a blessing.

What a blessing!  To know that somehow, some way, God will always provide for us what we need.  I mean, how many families do you see at Walmart where a single, working mom is towing a whole flock of youngsters?  Sure, God's idea of "what we need" might not intersect with our ideas of comfort or convenience.  But when the goal of our life is the enjoy and glorify our Maker and Sustainer, those "c-words" are only added graces.  So I might not have any clue what our life will someday look like, or how he will provide, but I need to choose to trust that God will be faithful to us and look after our family--better and more lavishly than we could imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9).

You may ask, "Andrew, how do you know you're one of 'the righteous'?"  Fair enough--a good look at my life might reveal a whole lot that isn't close to righteous.  But in the Bible, the "righteous" aren't the perfect people, but those who recognize their sinful brokenness and humbly cling to God and follow his ways the best that they can.  And today that means trusting in Jesus, whose perfect sonship and obedience is credited to everyone who hopes in and follows after him.

For additional thought: 2 Corinthians 9:6-11; Philippians 4:10-20.

Monday, February 10, 2014

You Will Not Restrain Your Mercy from Me

This morning I read this in Psalm 40, and it blew my mind:

As for you, O LORD, you will not restrain
     your mercy from me;
your steadfast love and your faithfulness will
     ever preserve me!
For evils have encompassed me
     beyond number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
    and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
     my heart fails me. (vv. 11-12)

What is so crazy?  David doesn't say that God will preserve him in spite of his own evils and iniquities.  I fact, he doesn't even ask God to preserve him, as if it were in question.  No, through the Holy Spirit, David spoke for God and testified that "You, O LORD, will not restrain your mercy from me ... For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me."  It is precisely because David is hopelessly mired the inescapable pit of in his own wretchedness (see vv. 1-2) that God remains faithful and steadfast.  God knew he was David's sole hope for rescue, and David knew it too.

Can you imagine that God is so full of mercy and compassion that when you're at your very worst, a stinking cesspool of selfishness, God is precisely at that point for you and full of love for you?  God delights in being faithful to the unfaithful, a rescuer to the hopeless.  This is what it means for God to be holy: when others would run away, that is when he is near. "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18; see also Isaiah 57:15).  All he asks is for a needy and contrite heart that cries out for him.

How can we know that God will be like this toward us?  After all, we certainly might be tempted to at least begrudgingly hold back some good from a messy, undeserving person.  But God doesn't curb it at all: "You will not restrain your mercy from me"!  In fact, to restrain his own mercy would be essentially to deny it.  Mercy is compassionate deliverance from an awful situation.  If God restrained his mercy by waiting for us to get our lives together, that wouldn't be mercy at all!

But the sureness of God's mercy rests on more than just a definition of mercy, however.  It rests on Jesus Christ.  Speaking of his looming suffering and death by crucifixion, Jesus said that "I have a baptism to be baptized with" (Luke 12:50).  A baptism represented a chaotic deluge, often of God's judgment (cf. Psalm 69:1-2).  He was overtaken by our iniquities--yours and mine--the "evils beyond number" of fallen mankind, so that only mercy and steadfast love would remain for those who come to God through him.  So the next time your eyes are opened to your sin and life feels like nothing but a suffocating failure, take courage and run to God through Jesus.  He will gladly receive you and rescue you.

[Postscript, 2/14: I realize that in wanting to put the work of Christ at the forefront, I think I've sort of put his person in an erroneous light.  To begin with, saying that God's mercy rests upon Christ and his cross does not and cannot mean that God the Father and God the Son were somehow at odds with each other over whether to have mercy on sinners.  Jesus said that he only did his Father's will and what the Father himself does (John 5:19-24) and that he and the Father are one (John 10:30).  And Paul reminds us that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19).  God himself was doing the reconciling.  And while in some sense that means the Father, it encompasses all three persons of the Triune Godhead.  And that very God is Jesus.

Second, I neglected to think of simply seeing mercy in Jesus' character--and in God's character throughout the Bible--as a testimony to who he is.  God "cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13); as he is, so he always will be.  We see God/Jesus doing concrete acts of mercy--raising widows' sons, providing bread to the needy, healing diseases--and that points us to his character as a person of mercy and compassion.]

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Sun of Righteousness
In the final Old Testament prophecy about Jesus--some 400 years before his birth--God spoke through the prophet Malachi that the Messiah would be "the sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2).  Later on, the author to the Hebrews said that Jesus, God's Son and this promised Messiah, is "the radiance of the glory of God"  (Hebrews 1:3).  Somewhere a while back I read a quote from John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.* Calvin said,
Christ, our righteousness, is the Sun, justification, its light, sanctification, its heat.  The Sun is at once the source of both, so that light and heat are inseparable.  But only light illumines and only heat warms, not the reverse; both are always present, without the one becoming the other.  (3.11.6)
I love this, because though it's not up to date with modern physics, it shows so many great biblical truths so clearly.