Friday, July 31, 2015

How do we follow God?

I am on the eve of finishing my study of the four great awakenings of America, and I am struck how one theme seems so prevalent in every awakening. But as I am not charismatic, I find myself hesitating to mention what I found. However, I am becoming convinced, that if we wish to see another awakening of God, that we will see this one theme repeated yet again. In every awakening, there was present an effort to seek a blessed experience with the Holy Spirit.

Before I talk frankly about what might dismay those of us who are not charismatic, let’s examine some of the common traits of this blessed experience. In every awakening this experience was something which aroused controversy. Jonathan Edwards had to defend much of the revival in his church for years afterwards, and several of the books that he has written deal with these defenses. He would take those who came forward, pray with them, and wait, often for hours, sometimes for all night until what can be described as the blessing and peace of the Holy Spirit would come over those making decisions. His own wife become one who experienced this blessing. Charles Finney taught about a second experience where one’s life became Spirit-filled. This was true during the Second Great Awakening, and by the time of the Third Great Awakening it had been named frequently as the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”. Even D.L. Moody, upon hearing about this, sought the blessing for himself. During our latest awakening, the Fourth Great Awakening, the record is clear. Many waited on the Lord, not so much calling this the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” but rather seeking a deep and meaningful experience with God. I just read an account this morning on a youth pastor from Sacramento who held a prayer meeting where most of those who prayed were overcome completely by the Spirit.

In discussing how we might follow God, I cannot in good conscience pass by that which is so obvious: there is a greater life to be had in walking with the Spirit. My own church just finished a series on the theme of Romans 12:1&2, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” If we are to follow God, we definitely want to present our bodies to God, that we might be transformed into a Spirit filled life, where we might regard God’s will in all that we say and do. That means, whatever else it means, that we are to look and pray for a deeper walk with God. Do we expect God to answer? Yes, again and again. These answers mean that we can and ought to experience many renewed visitations of the Holy Spirit.

Thus our lives should be filled with all sorts of second, third, and fourth experiences. We ought to be diligently seeking to present ourselves to God, that the Spirit might take us and help us to live a life filled with his blessing. In no way does that mean that we will escape problems; we are in the world, and will face wars, disease, persecutions, and death, but as Paul reminds us to do we need to count all of that as naught as we look to what glorious things God has bestowed upon us.

But back to the awakenings. As far as I can tell, the waiting on the Spirit’s blessing done in the First Great Awakening by Jonathan Edwards was the most scriptural. That is, by the measurement of the Bible, this seeking of a visible answer to prayer, one in which the Holy Spirit might flood the soul and overwhelm the penitent with joy and tears. As the awakenings progressed into the Second and especially the Third, the emphasis became something called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Properly speaking, this does not measure up to Biblical standards. “For by one Spirit were we all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Bible makes it clear that all believers are baptized into the body at the point of belief—it is not a subsequent experience to be sought for, but rather something every believer is given by the grace of God.

Having pointed out the Scripture, and that many were simply wrong in seeking a “second-only” experience with the Holy Spirit, what can be said for these beliefs in the awakenings? I would point out that the doctrine is errant, but not all that far from the true ideal. We should be seeking more from God all the time—do we not want to walk closer to God each day? But they who believed in this doctrine began also believe that once you experienced this baptism, you would begin to live a “perfected life”. That is also errant, departing far from the struggle that Paul describes in Romans seven. Nevertheless, there is more than a germ of truth in the idea of a Spirit-filled walk. As we begin to walk with God, we do indeed begin to leave our sinful practices behind, and we do indeed press onward toward the high calling of Christ Jesus. We do become better, but to the mature Christian who is looking inward at his own life sees the inward pull of his life ever there, and he even becomes more mindful of its pull as he is walking with God. Thus Paul could honestly describe himself as the “chief of sinners” because he could see the constant pull of his inward life. He knew that he was not nearly what he ought to be—far from perfection—and yet one of the greatest of apostles at the same time.

That is sort of our problem in following God. We are to take on the Holy Spirit because that is indeed the only way that we have to possibly follow God. Anything else is doomed to failure, for we cannot walk in our flesh and ever please God. But as we grow and mature in Christ, hopefully having many experiences with the blessings of the Holy Spirit, we are at the same time ever more cognate of the fact that our hearts are so far from what they should be. We ought not to make the mistake of our forefathers here, coming to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but we ought, as the Bible says, to always consider others better than ourselves. We are called to serve, but serve in all humility, knowing that if it were not for God’s deepest grace, we would lose ourselves totally.

It is a puzzle to me that we who have been saved can forget so quickly what we were saved from, but this even goes deeper than that. If God had not graciously given us his own Spirit, even after we are saved we would be nothing but despicable. Despicable me. Despicable you. But our thanks be to God, who graciously pours his Spirit out without measure, that we may find the power to live and walk with him. Without him in us our pride and arrogance would well up, and no one would see Jesus living in us. But thanks be to God! He has poured out his Spirit, and called us to live with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law (Galatians 5:22). The hymn says it all, “If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.” Our Lord, the greatest of all, gave us the example in humbling himself and washing the feet of the disciples. Let us humble ourselves in following him, and get busy by washing one another’s feet. But as we do it, hadn’t we ought to be seeking the Spirit?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What does the Bible mean when it says you are lost?

1 And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.
2 And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.
3 And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature.
4 And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.
5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house.
6 And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.
7 And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.
8 And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
9 And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.
10 For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.
Luke 19 (KJV)

One of the most beautiful things found in Scriptures is the willingness and love of God for those of us who are lost. Though this passage above is written about a time before the church, and I do notice that Jesus is offering salvation to one who is a son of Abraham, which means he is speaking to someone from the house of Israel, this passage yet has application for the common man today. I do recognize that its primary application must be in the period in which it was written. Who was he speaking to? A man named Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector, a man not worthy to be called a Jew. And what did Jesus represent at the time? He was the king, rejected of Israel, but at this point, still reaching out. And yet Jesus looks upon Zacchaeus, sees his heart, and issues a clarion call to him. “Come down,” he says, “and entertain me as your house guest.” Zacchaeus, probably longing in his heart to be noticed of Jesus, for why else would he climb a tree, was overjoyed and thrilled to entertain the man who claimed to be the Son of God.
I think there is an unmentioned important word here which eclipses the story itself. Elsewhere in the Bible, and repeated numerous times in the New Testament, is the phrase, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness.” Nowhere do we see these three words, “believed”, “faith”, or “trust”, and yet the story would not be able to stand without understanding that Zacchaeus based his response deeply in belief. Jesus, seeing that, remarks that today salvation had come to his house. As the church age unfolded, salvation offered from God did not change. What did change was that the focus was no longer primarily upon Israel. Now it was upon the rest of the world, referred to in the Bible as the Gentiles. Salvation has always come by faith, for those who trust God.
Jesus tells a parable of a wedding feast where the invited guests refuse to attend, though they are bidden to freely come. The head of the wedding party, seeing that most are refusing to come, sends out invitations to the all who are available, both good and bad. Mostly I deem the bad. That is the church today, you and me, called to a wedding and Paul tells us somewhere else, that our presence might arouse Israel to jealousy. We Gentiles have gotten ourselves invited to a wedding which was not to involve us at all, and there is no merit whatever in our being saved.
For Israel rejected their King, wanting nothing to with him, and instead, in the sovereign plan of God, a suffering Savior was sent. Israel rejected the Savior, that the Gentiles may be offered the Savior. God, who is long-suffering, has not replaced Israel with the church, but has broadened the offer of salvation to all who will simply believe. But what is the offer of salvation? And the more important question, the topic of this short piece, what does being lost mean?
If I start from the basic meaning of lost, someone who does not know his way, that pretty much is the meaning of lost here. But when the Bible talks about the lost, it goes a bit deeper. Being lost, according to Scripture, means that one is blind to the fact of one’s “lostness”. Being lost is bad enough, but it becomes much worse if one cannot even see that he is lost. Part of what happens when God begins the work of redemption in the heart is conviction of sin. The blind person simply has not believed that God the Father sent his Son to be a propitiation for his sins. But when he starts being convicted he begins to see somewhat that he is in desperate need—in other words his eyes are being opened to his plight and he is becoming aware that he are lost. For the first time the lost person begins to see the work that God has done in offering him redemption. He begins to see that Christ died personally for his sin, that God did this without compulsion, freely and graciously, and often times that person becomes overwhelmed with emotion as he is struck with the magnitude of love that God has demonstrated toward him.
Notice the usual order: first there is hearing the good news that God loves us, and sent his Son to die for us, and then second comes the realization (with the aid of the conviction work of God) that we are utterly sinful. Paul proclaims somewhere that he is the chief of sinners. Utter conviction had taken place in his heart as he realized his need for salvation, but it usually comes after hearing the good news of redemption. Many people make the mistake of evangelizing their friends by first telling them that they need to repent, and that will have little effect on them. Instead, more people would listen if the good news was proclaimed first, that they might see that they indeed have been blind. Repentance follows the realization of the gospel always, and seldom does it work the other way around. Indeed, the danger of early repentance is that the person comes to believe that his repentance has earned his salvation—a thought utterly foreign to the process of salvation. It is God’s revelation to us, his working upon our hearts with the message of the gospel that compels us to see our need for repentance.
In reading Greg Laurie’s autobiography, I found this testimony from just after he received Christ that seems to apply: “I’d been raised without many moral guidelines, but deep down inside I knew right from wrong. All the wrong I’d done—but more than that, the wrongness of my selfish heart—had accumulated into a heavy weight of guilt I’d never even known I had.”1 The pattern of people receiving Christ is remarkably similar; the need for one to repent is not really noticed until the point of belief. Thus when we believe, and only then, we become aware of our lostness.
There are many things that happen to new believers; Chafer has identified over 33 things that happen at the time a person receives Christ. But the divine order does seem to be believe first and then repent. Until one sees his need to believe, until the scales are removed from his blind eyes, he is utterly unable to come to God. Thus the timeless hymn, Amazing Grace, gives us these lines: I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see. Still the enigma remains; you will not know you were lost until you are found, sort of like moving into a house that you did not realize was to become your home and a part of you. “Oh, you might say when arriving, “I did not realize it, but I have never been home until now.”So the new Christian who realizes that he is seeing himself as he was for the first time might exclaim, “Oh my, I was a lost fellow, wasn’t I?”

1. Laurie, Greg, and Ellen Santilli Vaughn. Lost Boy: My Story. Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 2008. 90. Print.