Don’t Believe for a Better 2014

We are eight days into 2014, which means that you should be successfully moving along with all your resolutions and have already met half your goals for the year. I’m sure you’re down as many pounds in as many days.

Just kidding.

Jesus is better than the hopes and dreams, fulfilled or unfulfilled, of a new year.

What every Christian needs to be reminded of eight days into the year, is that you have been united with Jesus and God sees you as in him. This means that you are completely accepted by God, you have been delivered from the penalty of sin, you are in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit, and you are empowered to overcome the assaults of the enemy (see Christmas: The Celebration of the Destruction of the Devil and his Works for more on that last one) in 2014 . These four realities are a riff of of a section in Richard Lovelace’s book Dynamics of Spiritual Life. He calls Christian ministers to encourage their congregations in the following daily practice,

The aim of the minister should be to encourage in every parishioner an intelligent response of faith laying claim to the provisions of Christ’s redemptive work, a daily standing on the four platforms discussed in chapter four: You are accepted, you are delivered,  you are not alone, you have authority. [p. 210, Emphasis in original]

This last sentence could easily become a mantra or just another self-improvement motto. However, Lovelace is not saying we should have faith in our claims, as if our proclamations were magical. They are not.

The promises of a better year is one of the great false gospels we are tempted to believe every year at this time.

We are not laying claim to our claims, but laying claim to Christ.

Remembering who God in Christ is and who you are in light of what he has done is critical to your spiritual health. As I’ve written before, it should be a regular spiritual discipline because all of us have spiritual Alzheimer’s. Families and friends get together and go from story to story saying “remember when…”, and each day you should do the same thing rehearsing all that Jesus is and what he has won for you.

Believing for a better 2014 is empty apart from Jesus. Don’t do that. Because if 2014 turns out to not be what you think it should have been and you do things you wish you hadn’t (which you will) discouragement and even depression can set in. On the other hand, if it turns out to the best year of your life with less body weight, a happier marriage, goals met, and a finished Bible-reading plan, you may be tempted to self-righteousness. But if 2014 is built on Jesus instead of the hopes and dreams and possibilities of 2014, it can be the best year ever no matter how the year ends.

Jesus is better than the hopes and dreams, fulfilled or unfulfilled, of a new year.

Enter this year believing that God is for you (Ro. 8:31), God has rescued you (Ro. 8:1), God is with you (Heb. 13:5), and God is in you (Ro. 8:9-11)

The promises of a better year is one of the great false gospels we are tempted to believe every year at this time. Of course it is good to plan and to dream and to hope for the future, but it is best to enjoy all that God is for you in Jesus. The promises of Jesus, who he is and what he has done and who you are in him, is the only thing–the only person–worth banking the year on.

You are completely accepted, you are delivered, you are in-dwelt, and you are empowered in 2014. To put it another way, enter this year believing that God is for you (Ro. 8:31), God has rescued you (Ro. 8:1), God is with you (Heb. 13:5), and God is in you (Ro. 8:9-11). Why? All because of the person and work of Jesus.

Now with him in mind, forget the success or failures of the last eight days, and go get 2014.

Christmas: The Celebration of the Destruction of the Devil and his Works

Christmas time for many is a time for Santa Claus, passing out presents, figgy puddy, and overall holiday cheer. There are also those for whom Christmas is a painful reminder of what has been lost: broken relationships and marriages and the death of family or friends. For others, it’s a time to get sentimental about adorable baby Jesus all swaddled up in his manger with a halo on his head. Apparently, this baby Jesus doesn’t cry when he wakes up either (“no crying he makes”).  The apostle John, one of Jesus of Nazareth’s best friends, gave us a different reason behind–and needed reminder of–the meaning of Christmas. He wrote,

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

When John considered the entrance of the Son of God on planet earth, the first thing that came to his mind was not how cute baby Jesus must have been, but the obliteration of the devil’s works. This is not surprising when one takes into account the whole story the Scripture’s tell. God’s gospel design did not begin on day one of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, but was planned in eternity past by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and was promised later to the devil himself in the third chapter of Genesis:

 “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).

The appearance of Jesus on Christmas morning was the beginning of the crushing of the serpent’s head.

The context of John’s statement suggests that he wants his hearers to see how their sins connect to Satan: “He who sins is of the devil, for the devil sinned from the beginning” (1 Jn. 3:8). According to John, sin is not just about something you do, but who you belong to. This is far from a Hallmark Christmas Card’s view of human nature. Anyone who sins is of the devil. Period. The idea behind the Greek word here is one of ongoing continuous action (Colin Kruse, The Letters of John, 122). Therefore anyone who continues to sin demonstrates that they are following Satan not followers of the sinless Son of God.

Sin, according to John, is not harmless. It is homicidal. The first temptation of Satan that led to first sin of Eve plunged all of humankind into an endless stream of death. And death came quickly, as one of Adam and Eve’s sons was a murderer guilty of fratricide. Cain was not the only murderer around though. Jesus called Satan “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). The gospel writers even attribute the arrangement of the murder of Jesus, the only perfect human, to Satan entering the heart of Judas Iscariot (Jn. 13:27).

And this devil is a deceiver. He makes us believe that sin is either non-existent or not that a big deal. But that’s the lie, and humanity has been buying that lie since the beginning. We like the lie of the murderer even as it kills us.

Satan came to steal, kill, and destroy. Therefore every dead family member missing from the Christmas table and every broken home through divorce is the result of sin and Satan. Yes, God is sovereign over all, but God the Son put on flesh to undo Satan and his works and make him fall from heaven like a lighting bolt (Luke 10:18). This “undoing” is exactly what John is getting at when he says the appearance of Jesus “destroys” the works of Satan. NT scholar I. Howard Marshall writes, “The actual word used here, however, “to destroy’ is somewhat unusual: the task of Jesus was to undo whatever the devil had achieved, to thwart whatever he tries to do” (The Epistles of John, 185).

While the devil is a murderer, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. While the devil is a liar and a deceiver, Jesus is the truth. While the one who sins is of the devil and is a willing participant in the devil’s works, Jesus never sinned, and, as the sinless son of God, died in the place of any sinner that trusts him. His shed blood secures the forgiveness of those who confess their sins (1:9) and believe in him (5:1), so that those who were previously “of the devil” are now “born of God”  (5:1).

But there is even more. The good news of the gospel is that the reason Jesus appeared was to reverse sin’s effects and to conquer the devil and his strategies. Jesus destroys all of the devil’s works not just some of them. Christmas time should be a time of reflecting on all of the works of the devil that Jesus was born to undo. Here are a bit more:

  • The devil is an accuser who reminds believers of their sins in order to have them live in a state of condemnation. Demonic accusations and charges that prick a Christian’s conscience cannot stand because the accuser of the brethren has been thrown down by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:10). No one—not a demon or the devil himself—can successfully bring a charge against God’s elect, because God alone is the Judge and in the business of justifying sinners (Ro. 8:33).
  • The devil is an oppressor who torments body, mind, soul, and spirit. There is no mental or physical torment whatsoever if the Liar’s lie was not embraced at the beginning. Not every affliction in a particular person’s body is directly correlated to satanic activity, but some is. And, of course, there are many biological and neurological factors in mental illness, but some mental illness is the result of demonic torment.We must be nuanced here so that one doesn’t risk a kind of unscientific fundamentalism, but we must also be Christian here and realize that we Western believers have a tendency to nuance the devil out of everything. I’m convinced that one of Satan’s favorite things in the church is constant nuance. Over-nuancing everything de-supernaturalizes the spiritual realm and softens the prophetic edge and neuters the missional impulse of the church. The healing of the sick and the delivery of the oppressed in Jesus’s ministry was all connected to the fall of Satan through presence of the kingdom of God. In view of this, we should do all we can to pray for healing in the name of Jesus and work for healing through the medical and psychiatric fields all in the name of Jesus, knowing that he has ultimately secured this at the cross and will finally annihilate it when the devil is cast in to the lack of fire and curse is removed from the new heavens and new earth.
  • The devil is a hinderer who disrupts the purposes of God on the earth. Jesus said Satan steals the seed of God’s word from people’s hearts so that they will not be saved (Luke 8:12), and Paul said after the victory of Christ in the resurrection that Satan had still hindered him from going to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:18). The devil’s hidering power, however, is not ultimate and is broken because the kingdom is advancing and cannot be stopped. Jesus builds his church. Hell itself will not prevent his Bride from being gathered from every nation and people of the earth.
  • The devil is an inciter who motivates people to sin. Sorry, no, you don’t get to blame the devil for your sin, but we know that there are times that the devil does a bit more than tempt (1 Chr. 21:1; Acts 5:3). But we also know that “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 Jn. 5:18).
  • The devil is a blinder who blinds people to see the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Satan loves to keep people from seeing Jesus and hold them in the greatest of all sins, namely, unbelief. But God is sovereign and speaks his universe-creating and eye-opening word to shine “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” in the hearts of his people.

Clearly the devil still destroys. He prowls like a roaring lion seeking to devour. The fragments of his works are scattered all over our Christmas celebrations. Nevertheless, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the events that secure the triumphing and conquering defeat of the devil and his works. Satan and his strategies can have no ultimate power over those who trust Jesus. The devil has been disarmed by the Lamb who is making everything new.

There is something that brings greater joy than eggnog with a splash of holiday cheer and there is good news that can mend all the bad news you’ve received this past year(s): the baby lying in a manger is the conquering King Jesus. The kingdom has come because the King is here. Therefore the devil and his works has been, is being, and will finally and forever be destroyed and undone.

Is Your Faith like a Paper Sack or an Iron Chest?

Martin Luther, the German Protestant Reformer, gives the following analogy to show how the most important thing is not whether your faith is weak or strong, but how strong the object of your faith is. He writes,

We might compare this to two persons who possess a hundred guldens [gold coins]. The one may carry them in a paper sack, the other may keep them in an iron chest. But for all that, both possess the entire treasure. Thus the Christ whom you and I own is one and the same, regardless of the strength or weakness of your faith or mine. In Him we possess all, whether we hold Him with a strong faith or a weak faith. The entire service of God is contained in this: Believe in Christ, whom the Father has sent you. Accept His pronouncements. You can offer God nothing more pleasing to HIm in heaven or on earth. [Quoted by Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 391]

The point is not how tightly we hold the treasure, but is the treasure that we hold. Getting caught up in the value of the treasure will make us grip all the tighter, while focusing on how tightly you grip will, in fact, loosen your grip.

John MacArthur’s *Strange Fire* Conference, Charismatics, & Christ

I really cannot think of any charge more severe to make toward other human beings than to say that they have blasphemed the Spirit of God.

I’m not normally the watchblogger type. I find many critical blogs and bloggers quarrelsome, and not to be in step with the characteristics of the godly. As the Apostle Paul put it, “…the Lord’s servant *must not* be quarrelsome” (2 Tim. 2:24, emphasis added).

Christian’s should be known much more by what and who they are for than by what and who they are against. Yes, Christians must distinguish between that which we are for and that which we are against, and this comes from naming what we are against, but this should not be our central mark. Nevertheless, what follows is all done with what began here in mind.

For some time now I have considered a blog post on John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference that is coming up in October. After reading Reformed-Charismatic Adrian Warnock’s post today about John MacArthur essentially calling those in the charismatic movement blasphemers of the Spirit, I thought another one might be warranted.

Earlier this year I attended the Shepherd’s Conference and came away enriched by the ministry of John MacArthur (his deeply sobering sermon on Peter and Judas was dynamite) and others, but was quite disturbed by a promo vid for his future conference “Strange Fire”.

In it, MacArthur made, what I thought, was an extremely broad mischaracterization of an entire group of Christians, namely, the charismatic movement. He states,

It’s in the context of Leviticus 9 and 10 that I want to direct your attention towards “strange fire” that is being offered to God today. And it could well bring his judgment. What I’m talking about is the charismatic movement. It offers to God unacceptable worship. Distorted worship. It blasphemes the Holy Spirit. It attributes to the Holy Spirit, even the work of Satan.

When I heard this, I almost walked out of the conference. And this was not because I am unaware of aberrations and heresies within the charismatic movement. There are. Nor is it because I am unaware of MacArthur’s position on this. Years ago, I read most of Charismatic Chaos and his cessationist reading of Scripture is widely known. But it is irresponsible–to put it mildly–of him to lump an entire group of Christians as blasphemers of the Spirit. In fact, I believe, his sweeping generalization deeply grieves the Holy Spirit of God.

Let’s keep the main thing the main thing. And being or not being a charismatic is not the main thing. Jesus Christ, whom I know MacArthur and many charismatics love, is.

However, I don’t know that he even truly believes what he said here. It is my understanding that CJ Mahaney, a charismatic, preached in his pulpit and that he has relationships with other continuationist pastors like John Piper. Maybe it was intended to be alarmist to better “market” the conference? After all, in a later video, he seems to clean this up a touch, as he gives a “word of encouragement to faithful Pentecostals” and says that the conference is addressing the aberrations and extremes of the movement. (Would of been nice to hear that the first time). But this was *not* communicated in the first video, even if it was intended.

On a personal note, I too am charismatic. I was raised in an Assemblies of God church and love many in and am friends with some of the leaders of the movement itself. Though I am no longer a part of the Assemblies of God (even after attending one of there colleges) and disagree with certain doctrines and teachings of the charismatic movement, I also strongly believe that many of the desires and pursuits and experiences within the movement are because of the Scriptures not in spite of them. The zealous pursuit of spiritual gifts, the eager expectation for God himself to intervene and act tangibly in our midst, the passion for the “already” and the power (not just talk) of the kingdom of God, the pursuit of God’s healing and delivering power, the longing to be filled with the Spirit (not just once) but continually, are all biblically rooted desires and goals of the charismatic movement as a whole. We are brothers and sisters not enemies of the cross of Christ.

Blasphemy of the Spirit is a dead serious charge. I really cannot think of any charge more severe to make toward other human beings than to say that they have blasphemed the Spirit of God. The charismatic movement, as a whole, has not blasphemed the Spirit. Many affirm wholeheartedly the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. Sure, some charismatics can elevate, at least in emphasis, secondary issues (healing, experience, signs and wonders, etc.) above primary ones. But isn’t this exactly what MacArthur is doing here and then he’s calling others blasphemers for possibly doing the same thing?

I don’t doubt I will agree with some of the critiques within parts of the charismatic movement that will be made by the speakers at the Strange Fire conference. But the irresponsibility of MacArthur’s sweeping generalization should be candidly addressed and critiqued by other Christian leaders (continuationist or not). These kind of remarks further divide the church and grieve the Spirit by whom we all have been sealed.

Let’s keep the main thing the main thing. And being or not being a charismatic is not the main thing. Jesus Christ, whom I know MacArthur and many charismatics love, is.

The Christian’s Relationship with God is Better than Sinless Adam.

Abraham Kuyper, in The Work of the Holy Spirit, shows how the position of a Christian now is far better than the position of Adam before he fell. He writes,

“Therefore, the ungodly, when justified by grace, has nothing to do with Adam’s state before the fall, but occupies the position of Jesus after the resurrection. He possesses a good that can not be lost. He works no more for wages, but the inheritance is his own. His works, zeal, love, and praise flow not from his own poverty, but from the overflowing fulness of life that was obtained for him…

The work of re-creation has this peculiarity, that it places the elect at once at the end of the road. They are not like the traveler still half way from home, but like one who has finished his journey; the long, dreary, and dangerous road is entirely behind him. Of course, he did not run that road; he could never have reached his goal. His Mediator and Daysman traveled it for him and in his stead. And by mystic union with his Savior it is as tho [sic] he had traveled the whole distance; not as we reckon, but as God reckons. (49, 50)

The relationship of the Christian with God is less like the relationship of sinless Adam with God in the garden, and more like the relationship of Jesus with God. By grace, we have been unified with Christ not with sinful or even sinless Adam.

Dr. Reza Aslan’s Jesus: Safe & Subjective

Dr. Reza Aslan’s version of Jesus of Nazareth has been getting a bit of press lately, and the viral Fox News interview with him discussing his recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth sure didn’t hurt the sales any. I haven’t read the book, but from the sounds of it (see paragraph 3 in the following interview) Dr. Aslan, like other scholars before him, are attempting to extract the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the four gospels. In another interview with The Atlantic author Joe Fassler, Dr. Aslan presents Jesus as a revolutionary who confronted the powerful religious establishment for the sake of the powerless and offered a salvation to people that comes from within:

In Dr. Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus you get to be your own Yahweh or at least make God whatever you want him to be, while in the gospels Jesus reserves the sacred divine name for himself.

I think that, obviously, is an enormous threat to the power-holders whose authority came from—precisely as Dostoevsky says—from their ability to appease a man’s conscience. Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation. And Jesus’ challenge to that idea was based on the notion that the power for salvation does not rest in any outsider’s hand: that it rests within the individual. I think that’s an idea that a lot of Christians need to remember. Those who state that salvation comes solely through the Church or belief in a set of doctrines that a bunch of men wrote many years ago are forgetting what Jesus himself said: that salvation is purely an internal matter. That you are the only one qualified to define what God is for you. No one else is qualified to make that decision for you.

This version of Jesus isn’t unique or new. In fact, he’s quite popular. He’s got a message of empowerment and self-salvation, which is eaten up by spiritual but not religious Americans. His Nazarene upsets the safety of the establishment through confrontation, while offering the safest of religious sensibilities. This Jesus grants justice for the weak and marginalized in the here-and-now and then basically gives us what we naturally want out of religion anyway–God and salvation on our own terms. He’s out to revolutionize the injustice of the world, but not to revolutionize the human hearts propensity to subjective idolatry.

The kind of radical revolution of religion that Jesus is promoting is not an internal, relativistic theism, but he’s calling the ones in power and the powerless to worship him and find salvation in him alone.

This is quite the opposite of Jesus, the Jewish man of the New Testament (I recognize that Aslan isn’t after that Jesus anyway), who was steeped in Israel’s identity and embodied Israel’s story in himself. According to this story, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, had quite a different understanding of God than Dr. Aslan. In the book of Exodus Yahweh called himself rather simply and almost curtly, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14). In other words, “I am and there is nothing you can do about it. I’m the definer. You are not. I exist independently of you, and you exist dependently upon me.” And the crazy-if-it-isn’t-true thing about the man Jesus of Nazareth is that he called Yahweh his Father, and not only that, he identified himself with Yahweh himself.

Dr. Aslan, as Fassler’s interview showed, doesn’t like this kind of Jesus. He’s distrustful of “anyone who presents themselves as a gatekeeper to truth, or a gatekeeper to salvation”. But this is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus, according to his own words, was the exclusive gatekeeper of the truth because he was the gate (Jn. 10:9) and the truth (Jn. 14:6).

In Dr. Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus you get to be your own Yahweh or at least make God whatever you want him to be, while in the gospels Jesus reserves the sacred divine name for himself. According to the gospel writer’s Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t put to death because he simply upset the religious establishment by breaking tradition and coming alongside the lowly, he upset the religious establishment most of all because he blasphemed by making himself out to be God.

These claims are found in many places in the gospels, yet there is one particular place in chapter five of John’s gospel that seems particularly revealing over against Dr. Aslan’s differing representation of Jesus. Here in a moment where Jesus is operating as a kind of revolutionary, doing good and overturning the religious establishment by healing on the Sabbath, at the same time, he is claiming to be God. Not only is he doing justice by restoring a paraplegic man to wholeness, in spite of the rules of the religious system, he is claiming to being doing the very “work” (a big no-no on the Sabbath) of his Father: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (5:17). In the next verse, the narrator of this gospel, fills out the results of Jesus’ words and actions,

“This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (5:18)

Jesus goes on to say this very same thing by identifying himself with his Father, Yahweh, and comes up with different claims than Dr. Aslan’s Jesus. John’s Jesus says,

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (5:22-24)

Key word here: honor. Key phrase: just as. Jesus is claiming to deserve the same honor–the same worship–as Yahweh. Furthermore, he is saying that eternal life, salvation, is found in him. The kind of radical revolution of religion that Jesus is promoting is not an internal, relativistic theism, but he’s calling the ones in power and the powerless to worship him and find salvation in him alone.

I’ll leave it to New Testament scholars like NT Wright (in places like this) and Richard Bauckham (see Michael Kruger’s recent post on the historicity of John’s gospel) to demonstrate the historicity of the Jesus of the gospels, but Dr. Aslan’s Jesus is not the Jesus of history or the gospels. The Jesus of the gospels is more like CS Lewis’s Jesus-figure, Aslan, the King of the mythic world Narnia who is a simultaneously unsafe, untamed and entirely good lion, while Dr. Aslan’s Jesus is more like a chameleon who changes the colors of the divine to whatever you want him/her/it to be.

The Father’s Extravagant and Compassionate Love

Michael Knowles, describing the father, who represents the Father, in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), writes,

“The extravagance of the father’s gestures is as outrageous as the scandalous selfishness of the son’s previous conduct.”

According to Jesus, God’s compassion amounts to an offer more profligate than any wayward child, for it is the longing of a parent who cannot forget the children to whom he or she has given life. Although the younger son has done everything in his power to break his father’s heart, in the end he fails to do so, for he discovers that his father is willing to bear more shame, sorrow, and loss than the son is able to inflict.

Michael P. Knowles. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst (Kindle Locations 942-944). Kindle Edition.

Knowles gives seven ways the father of the parable shows how God’s grace is outrageously more abundant than our sin (Romans 5:20),

First, he runs to meet his wayward son. Second, the father embraces and, third, kisses him, public gestures not only of greeting but also (in this case) of forgiveness. Fourth, the father orders that his son be honored with the best garment in the house; fifth, he orders a ring for the son’s finger, and, sixth, he provides sandals for his feet. Seventh and finally, the father orders a celebratory feast. A “fattened calf” cannot remain in that state for long; it quickly grows to maturity, all the more so for having been fed so well. It can only be that for as long as his younger son has been absent the father has fattened each calf to which his cows have given birth, each time hoping against hope to make a joyful banquet of it.

The extravagance of the father’s gestures is as outrageous as the scandalous selfishness of the son’s previous conduct.

(Kindle Locations 933-938). Kindle Edition.