Tuesday, October 31, 2017

no bigger deal

The Word for today:
Romans 9:1-13
A couple days ago, I encouraged the no-longer-novice Bible students among us to make the transition from paraphrased Bible versions to "standard" versions, where they will learn to love those big, grand, power-packed Bible words that once seemed so intimidating.
I then went on to contrast a paraphrased rendering of Romans 1:16-17 with a "standard" rendition of those same verses. I made a big deal of the difference between "made right with God" and "the righteousness of God is revealed."
I made a big deal of it, but not big enough. Because to understand what Romans 1:16-17 is saying will turn your life upside down. I can attest to that because those verses have turned my life both upside down and inside out. But I'm just small potatoes, so here comes the even bigger deal I promised:
Romans 1:16-17, a capsule summary of Paul's message to the Romans, changed Martin Luther forever. After he finally understood the words "therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith," Luther said, "I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning….This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven." (1)
What had Luther discovered that so deeply transformed him--and eventually all of Christendom? Embedded in these verses is the concept of "Sola Fide"--salvation by faith alone in Christ alone--which is the cornerstone of biblical understanding. But the concept had been buried under the traditions and false teaching of the medieval church.
It is hard for us, from our vantage point 500 years later, to imagine how Sola Fide could have gotten lost in the church, when the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation is shot through with the concept.
It is just as hard to imagine the Bible getting lost in the USA when the average household has three of them! But if they are seldom opened, seldom understood, and seldom heeded, then they are, by any real measure, lost.
Though you and I are unlikely to rescue the central tenet of Scripture from oblivion, we can--by loving it, learning it, and living it--keep the Bible from being "lost" to our families and to our local churches.
Show me a bigger deal than that.
(1) The New Student Bible, 1992, Zondervan.

Monday, October 30, 2017

rhetorical questions

(by Pastor Joe)
The Word for Today: Romans 8:18-39
Here's the scene:
It is the beginning of a hot, humid day. You are getting on a crowded subway.
Cue narrator:
"Aren't you glad that you use Dial?..."
The subway sputters forward a little ways and then stops unexpectedly. It looks like you are going to be there for a little while.
"...don't you wish everyone else did?"
This silly little commercial is an example of a rhetorical question, which is simply a question posed not to obtain information, but rather for effect, because the answer is obvious. In this regrettable commercial, there is no doubt that when trapped on a crowded subway, there is no such thing as too much soap, or deodorant, or mouthwash for that matter. (Working with students, especially middle school boys, I could care less about the actual brand. The question simply becomes "Aren't you glad that you use soap? Don't you wish everyone did?")
Rhetorical questions are all around us, from the pedestrian "Is the Pope Catholic?" or "Do I look like some sort of idiot?" to the sublime "If you prick us, do we not bleed?(1)" And four times in today's passage, we see the Apostle Paul use a rhetorical question to drive his point home.
But as we proceed, we do so humbly and with caution, because Romans in general, and chapter 8 specifically, deal with the highest summits in the entire Bible. Here we have multiple key verses on the nature and work of God- Father, Son, & Spirit. We see the basics of sin and the Law, life and death, condemnation and justification, prayer, providence and the work God does in our lives. And we are reassured of God's complete and unshakable love.
Note the 4 rhetorical questions:
v. 31  If God is for us, who can be against us?
v. 33  Who shall bring any charge against God's elect?
v. 34  Who is to condemn?
v. 35  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
The answers are so simple and so implied that Paul does not even bother answering them. (Remember, that makes it rhetorical!)
Know that these words from Paul are not soft, untested theoretical pontifications. Nothing from Romans 8 has anything to do with some sappy and overly sentimental Hallmark card. No, these truths have been tested and lived out by many, especially the author. Paul knew what it was like to be opposed, and charged, and condemned, and even cut off from everyone around him (2). Yet it was in those times that God showed Himself strong (3).
But beyond what Paul and many other heroes in the faith have shown us, there remains an even greater proof. Look back to verses 31-35. Nothing ultimately can be against us because Christ did everything possible for us. No one can ultimately bring a charge against us because the only one qualified to do so has already justified us. No one can ultimately condemn us because Christ Himself was condemned that we be set free. (That's why we have more in common with Barabbas than we'd cared to admit (4).)  Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, because Christ Himself went through tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger , and the sword for us.
(1) William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
(2) see 2 Corinthians 11:21-29 and 2 Timothy 4:9-18
(3) 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
(4) see Matthew 27:16-26

Sunday, October 29, 2017

a grand slam should never sound like a single

The Word for today:
Romans 8:1-17
Note: This article was first published on this date in 2011.
Some of the precepts and concepts of the kingdom of heaven are, at first, difficult to comprehend. So thank God that some of our Bible versions do a great job of making things easier to understand.
I'll never forget the first time I saw The Living Bible. I think it was in 1974. I was working as a counselor at Camp Kenan on the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. Another one of the counselors was what we then called a Jesus Freak. He had this dark green vinyl-bound Bible that was distinctly unlike any Bible I'd ever encountered. No thees, no thous. King James was turning over in his grave, but people were buying it by the millions (1).
You can still purchase a Living Bible today, or you can buy its descendant--The New Living Translation. I recommend both titles without reservation. I read and quote them often.
But (you saw that coming) you should eventually avail yourself of what are called "standard" Bible translations--like the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, or the king of them all--King James.
Eventually you should become conversant with the words--such as justification, redemption, righteousness, sanctification, propitiation--that you will encounter in "standard" versions. Such words are so packed with meaning that, when understood, they carry more force than the explanatory words used by the paraphrased versions.
Let me illustrate with a sentence I read today in the newspaper:
"Down to their final strike in the ninth and 10th, the Cardinals won Game 6 on David Freese's 11th-inning homer off Mark Lowe."
Those few words, when made understandable to the uninitiated, would sound something like this:
The St. Louis Cardinals of the National Baseball League were just one throw (from a "pitcher" on the "pitching mound") away from losing the 4th game of a best-of-7 series against the Texas Rangers, their rivals from the American Baseball League.
This series of games (known as the "World Series") is the culmination of the professional baseball season in the USA. Thus if the Cardinals had failed to hit the final ball thrown in the ninth "inning" (the last regularly-scheduled opportunity to score a "run" by touching all four "bases" in diamond formation) then the Rangers would have won the championship there and then.
But when David Frees, a Cardinal "batter" (so-called because he attempts to strike a ball with a thick wooden stick called a "bat") hit a ball, thrown by Ranger pitcher Mark Lowe, over a fence so far away that batters seldom reach it, it meant that the Cardinals had extended the series to a seventh game, and still had a chance to become the "world champions" of 2011.
The instant crack of the bat, the ball tracing indelible memories as it arcs through the flood-lit St. Louis night…gets lost in translation!
It's like trying to explain a punch-line to a person who doesn't "get it" in the first place. The intuitive flash of humor engendered by comic timing and inflection gets lost in the explanation.
In the same way, it becomes difficult for a Bible teacher to proclaim that "The theme of Romans is the righteousness of God; and the theme passage is 1:16-17," when the New Living Translation renders it this way…
For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes – Jews first and also Gentiles. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. (Romans 1:16-17/New Living Translation)
There is technically nothing wrong with that rendition, but unless you know how the phrase is rendered in a standard translation, it can leave you with the impression that God thinks you're alright, you're OK.
Here's the same passage--the theme passage of Romans--as rendered in a "standard" translation:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. (Romans 1:16-17/New American Standard Bible)
The Holy Spirit in Romans 1:16-17 isn't saying that we're OK in God's sight. What He's teaching is that God mistakes us for Jesus!
It is a far cry from "makes us right" to "the righteousness of God is revealed." But it's not a long time until Christmas. So I hope you start dropping hints, to friends and family, that a "standard" Bible makes the perfect present--
because a grand slam should never sound like a single.
(1) In 1972 and 1973, The Living Bible was the best-selling book in America. By 1997, 40 million copies of The Living Bible had been sold.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

connecting faith to faith

The Word for today:
Romans 7:7-25
We think of the Apostle Paul as the spiritual giant of the New Testament. He was the great defender of the faith. He was the greatest missionary who ever lived. (I also happen to think he had the highest IQ in history.)
And he was the desperate man whose voice we hear in Romans 7:
I don't understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. But I can't help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things. I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn, I can't make myself do right. I want to, but I can't. When I want to do good, I don't. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway. But if I am doing what I don't want to do, I am not really the one doing it; the sin within me is doing it. It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God's law with all my heart. But there is another law at work within me that is at war with my mind. This law wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin? (Romans 7:15-24)
God chose Paul to express, in writing, the theology of the gospel. But perhaps more importantly, God chose Paul to express, through the life he led, the transformative power of the gospel he wrote about. Thus Paul was, like Jesus, the fleshing out of the words he'd written.
Paul was chosen as Exhibit A because if the gospel could transform Paul, it can transform anybody. Let's work this out logically, as Paul would:
(Major premise) Paul is the chief of sinners. The Bible says so:
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (1 Tim 1 :15)
(Minor premise) Paul is the most influential Christian of all time. The Bible shows so.
(Conclusion) Therefore Paul is a vivid example of how completely God can change us for the better.
There are two chapter divisions in scripture which must be understood in light of one another. The first is from chapter 2 to chapter 3 of Genesis. The second is from chapter 7 to chapter 8 of Romans.
In chapter 2 of Genesis, all is innocence and harmonic perfection. But we enter chapter 3 and all hell breaks loose.
In chapter 7 of Romans, Paul is helpless against the onslaught of sin. But as we enter chapter 8, all heaven breaks loose.
What happened? In Genesis 3, sin happened. Man decided to live independently, to place his faith in himself, and hellish consequences followed.
In Romans 8, the Holy Spirit happened upon the scene. Paul decided to live dependently, placing his faith in God, and it was as if someone pressed the power button!
Most of my born-again life has been lived in Romans 7. I've known short seasons (they seemed like vacations!) in Romans 8, but then I slide back into 7.
And I'm not alone. Truth be told, the vacillation between Romans 7 and 8 is the story of every Christian life that I'm aware of.
So let me tell you what my struggles have taught me…
It was by faith in the cross of Jesus Christ that I was forgiven:
I have been crucified with Christ…
Most of us have that part of salvation (sorry to say it this way) nailed. But the next part is what sometimes eludes us:
It is by faith in the resurrection of Jesus that I am empowered to live:
…now it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. And the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God. (1)
The cross emptied us of sin; now the Spirit fills us with resurrection power. Both are components of the total salvation we received when we first believed in Jesus. We get stuck in Romans 7 when our faith stops at forgiveness, as if Jesus were still at the cross.
The full effect of our salvation is not realized until we live from faith to faith--from faith in God's forgiveness at the cross to faith in God's empowerment by His Spirit:
The gospel...is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. (Romans 1:16-17)
You can think of this in terms of your car's battery. If we're connected to the negative terminal (the subtraction of sin at the cross) but forget to connect to the positive terminal (the resurrection power of Jesus, through his Spirit), then our faith hasn't come full circuit.
But when we're connected from faith to faith, we know the sensation (as Paul did) of being carried into Romans 8 -- into another realm -- by a power that is not our own.
(1) Galatians 2:20

Friday, October 27, 2017

show me the way to go home

The Word for today:
Romans 6.15-7.6
mark these:
(see verses below)
I meant to do my work today. But I'm so far under the weather that I'd need a shovel to dig my way to the surface.
I meant to be your tour guide all the way down the Romans Road.
But I found some links to other Romans Road tours that might (I must be sick to be saying this) be a little bit better than the Romans Road tour I was planning for you.
"The Romans Road" is a great way to show-and-tell the gospel to some other traveler who's trying to find the way home. All you need to do is mark your Bible or Testament with the verses you'll be seeing in just a second. Then you'll be ready when someone asks directions.
Many of you have heard of the Romans Road, but that doesn't excuse you from today's field trip! If you've already been down that road then your assignment is to memorize the verses (1) that mark the way:
All Have Sinned:
Romans 3:10
Romans 3:23
God's Plan of Salvation:
Romans 6:23
Romans 5:8
How We Receive Salvation:
Romans 10:9
Romans 10:11
Romans 10:13
The Results of Salvation:
Romans 5:1
Romans 8:1
Romans 8:38-39
I would never post this link if I weren't delirious with fever, but for you revved-up rock and rollers out there I found "Still Like That Old-Time Romans Road." Click it! Crank it!
And for squares like me, I found a link that will sit still as you read or listen to it:
"What is the Romans Road to salvation?"
And for the graphically-driven, this one comes equipped with its own sense of urgency:
"Romans Road Countdown."
If you've already been to Rome and you've already got the markers memorized, then your assignment is to show the way to someone who is lost.
Meanwhile, I'm going to make a cup of hot chocolate and then find my blankie. You kids go on ahead without me. I'll catch up tomorrow.
(1) Though you will notice slight variations in the verses chosen, all Romans Road-Maps will get you there!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

he taught it to all before he taught it to Paul

The Word for today:
Romans 6:1-14
Romans is the Manifesto of the Gospel, in which Paul very deliberately develops the rationale for salvation sola fide--by faith alone in Christ alone.
Romans is a formal treatise, written to your head. (If you want to read the street version of the gospel, then turn to Galatians, where Paul takes up the ideas in Romans and aims them at your heart.)
Paul's letters are the most thorough explanation of the gospel. Which naturally raises the question…
Q. Who explained it all to Paul?
A. He got it directly from Jesus:
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)
Cutting to the chase, let’s take on the two most complex theological propositions in Romans in order to trace the streams of Paul's thoughts back to their source…
1. Faith or Works?
This is the issue most identified with Paul. But it should not be associated primarily with Paul, because Jesus taught it to all before he ever taught it to Paul:
Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:28-29)
(Note well: If ever you get confused about the fundamentals of your New Testament, go to John 6:28-29--early and often.)
2. Election or Free Will?
The answer is both--absolutely and all at once:
All that the Father gives me (that's election) will come to me, and whoever comes to me (that's free will) I will by no means cast out (that's a promise). (John 6:37)
What we are taught in the epistles is all in the gospels, in kernel form. 
The kernel died (and rose again) in the gospels, producing many seeds:
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24)
The ‘apostle’s doctrine’ (Acts 2:42) is what Jesus taught them:
Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I'll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20/MSG)
And they were all taught by the Holy Spirit:
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (John 16:12-13)
Surely we listen to Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John, Paul…but ultimately, we “Listen to Him.” (Matthew 17:1-5; Acts 3:22; cf. Deuteronomy 18:15)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


The Word for today:
Romans 5:12-21
We enter, in Romans chapters 5 through 8, the heart of the gospel--the good news; the startlingly good news; the radically good news.
The gospel, the Good News, overcomes the law and is the prevailing eternal truth. The law was never meant to save. It was only meant to be a tutor, to show us our need for a Savior and point the way to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).
But, by faith, we graduated:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1)
So I'm never going back to my old school. I'm not under the tutelage of the law anymore. Since I died with Christ the law is as good as dead to me:
The law no longer holds you in its power, because you died to its power when you died with Christ on the cross…Now we can really serve God, not in the old way by obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way, by the Spirit. (See Romans 7:4-6.)
Graduation…becoming a widow…these pictures of real-life events mark radical departures from the past.
Graduation means (well, it used to) that we move out from under our parents' roof and their rules. Bewidowment (you just witnessed the birth of a word) means that we are beholden no longer.
You have broken from the past if you have received the salvation of the LORD Jesus Christ. When you made the break, I hope you heard the stick -- the old-school life you were stuck with -- snap.
Snap! If you haven't heard it, if you haven't decisively entered the new realm of faith in the salvation that was forever settled by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then perhaps you never really left your old school behind. Perhaps you never departed from former ways and old assumptions.
The most radical thinker who ever lived is the Christ whose name we have taken. The most radical thought ever thought is God's determination to take your place in order to save your soul. And then (because the thoughts of God are as good as done) he did it.
For all the Bible teaching I do I rarely tell people how to live their lives, because my advice never did anything for anybody. The only thing that works is to practice the presence of the LORD--to stand in the rain, as it were, and become one with the Word that baptizes you.
But if I were to adjure Christians to do just one thing, it would be to make a radical departure from the old school and the old religion and the old law and the old assumptions.
The essence of salvation is to become ever more and more like the Savior who saved you. So get out of the old "house" where you were raised; get out from under your "parents'" rules; leave the "marriage" they'd arranged for you and fiercely embrace the new life that gets newer with each passing day:
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32, quoting Genesis 2:24)
Make the break. Make the break so vehemently and decisively that family and friends and church hear something snap.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

it's good to be king

The Word for today:
Romans 5:1-11
mark this:
The sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to be king over all, but all who will take God's gift of forgiveness and acquittal are kings of life because of this one man, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:17)
What if someone--someone with the universally-recognized authority to do so--were to hold a coronation and proclaim you king?
Well, someone has! I think the Living Bible says it best:
The sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to be king over all, but all who will take God's gift of forgiveness and acquittal are kings of life because of this one man, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:17)
The question now becomes, "What are you going to do about it?"
Because if you're not going to act like a king, then what's the good of being a king?
The problem is that most of us were more pauper than prince, more mutt than thoroughbred, so the king thing doesn't come naturally….
Not to worry. God knows that royalty isn't on our resumes, so the king thing has been supernaturally bred into us when he gave us the power to become sons of God:
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13)
We've been given the authority and the power and the title. So let's do what we are. And let's not aim to be second-rate kings. Instead, let's emulate the King of kings himself! (1)
But don't rush, because kings never do! Just Stand in the Rain every day and you'll begin to pick up his kingly ways.
And don't wait for heaven to start being the king you are, because the kingdom of heaven is all the way from here to there! You will get better and better at this king thing as time goes on, like King David did. At first, you will even stumble and fall sometimes, like King David did.
But you'll get up, like King David did, because as a man after God's own heart--like King David was (2)--you'll get up when you fall, like King Jesus did as he wore his kingly crown all the way to the cross.
Like earthly Kings, King Jesus had many other royal titles. One of them is "The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David's Tree." (Revelation 5:5/MSG)
What that means (this will turn your mind topsy-turvy) is that King David descended from King Jesus in GST (God-Standard Time).
And--get this--according to Romans chapter 11, you (because of your faith in Jesus) have been grafted into that same family tree, so now you inherit the crown and all the characteristics of the lineage!
Which means you aren't just "King (Your Name Here)" but you are "King (Your Name Here), the Lion-Hearted!"
Now that is a title fit for a king. So go and follow your lion's heart wherever it takes you--all the way from here to there!
(1) Revelation 17:14; (2) 1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22

Monday, October 23, 2017

a relationship, not a process

The Word for today:

Romans 4:16-25
Paul goes to great lengths in Romans chapter 4 to describe the faith that saves:
God will credit righteousness to those who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (Romans 4:24)
Now look more closely, paying attention to the order of the words:
God will credit righteousness to those who believe in him
Stop right there! If you were to ask me what saving faith is, the question itself points to a fundamental error, for it is never a question of what saving faith is, but who saving faith is.
I point this out because it's so obvious that we can lose sight of it. But when we think of salvation in terms of what (the work of God) instead of whom (the person of God), we start to slide into an error associated with idolaters, who worship the creature (God's work) rather than the Creator (God himself). (1)
Stand in the Rain is not in the hair-splitting business. Certainly those of us who say we believe in the cross and the resurrection are proclaiming saving faith.
But we can so focus on the saving work of God--rather than the Savior Himself--that we unconsciously approach the subtle idolatry of medieval believers who attributed spiritual power to slivers of wood that were said to have been part of "the true cross."
But a cross never saved anybody. It was only an altar which held the sacrifice.
And the blood of a sacrifice never saved anybody--until the blood was His. (2)
The Bible is the story of salvation. Like any story, it consists of two components--plot and character. Our salvation emanates from the character of God. The plot elements--the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--are the inevitable after-effects of the saving nature of God.
Thus God was a Savior before he ever saved a soul--he is the Lamb who was killed before the world was made (3)--because salvation is a Person, not a process.
(1) Romans 1:25; (2) see Hebrews 10:4; (3) Revelation 13:8

Sunday, October 22, 2017

a better question

(by Pastor Joe)
The Word for Today: Romans 4:1-15
mark this: Romans 4:3
"For what does the Scripture say?"
"What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD?)"
This is a phrase that was originally made popular in the late 1890's. It came from the book, In His Steps, written by Charles Sheldon. I am not going to get into the book-- seeing as it has sold over 30 million copies, it's easy enough to obtain. Suffice it to say that the plot of this best seller involves the dramatic change in people's lives as they attempt to live a year of their lives, asking "What would Jesus do?" before any action or decision.
Then, about 100 years later, there was a new emphasis on WWJD? A fad swept across American Christendom. WWJD? became the new catchphrase, and these four little letters made millions of dollars by appearing on anything and everything (t-shirts, bumper stickers, bracelets, hats, buttons, teddy bears, pencils, coffee mugs, hula hoops, board games, blenders, hang gliders, accordions etc.)
The problem is that while this question can be beneficial, it is certainly not the best one. The truth is, so often, I have no idea "what would Jesus do?" I could guess. I could speculate.
But the honest answer often is, "I don't know."
We can certainly know what Jesus did do, but to assume what He would do can be a mistake. Think of His reactions to the Pharisees, or Pilate, or Zaccheus, or the money changers in the Temple, or the woman caught in adultery. Not one of us could have accurately predicted "what would Jesus do? " in those situations. He constantly mystified His own closest followers (1). The Second Person of the Trinity cannot, and will not be limited by some catch phrase.
So here is a much better question: "What does the Scripture say?"
Now there is something that we can somewhat grasp, there is something much more concrete and verifiable. Something that does not rely upon my own opinion or interpretation.
In today's reading, the apostle Paul is defending the basic truths of the Gospel message. In the previous three chapters of Romans, he has made many bold claims about:
- the sorry condition of humanity (1:18-32)
- the limitations of the Law and moralism (2:1-29)
- the consequences of sin (3:9-20)
- the justification  by faith in Christ (3:21- 31)
Now, he's trying to prove these points, and he does so by using examples from the Bible. Both Abraham and David demonstrate that we are justified (or counted as righteous) by trust in God, not by external acts or ceremonies. David speaks of the amazing mercy of God's forgiveness (from Psalm 32), mercy that is dependent on God, and not our good deeds. And Abraham's faith in God came before any kind of religious action such as circumcision. All this to bolster the claim that we are "justified by faith, apart from the Law.(2)"
But notice that Paul bases this claim not on intuition, tradition, common wisdom, public opinion, or even his own powerful experiences. These things all have their place, but he goes out of his way to make sure that his statements are rooted in Scripture.
We must follow his example. It's fine to have an opinion, a tradition, a speculation about something, but we must always defer to the Bible as the ultimate authority. Whenever people have failed to do so in the past has resulted in all sorts of nonsense, and the same is true of our lives when we fail to ask the better question: "What does the Scripture say?"
(1) see Matthew 8:27, Mark 9:32
(2) Romans 3:28

Saturday, October 21, 2017

the one clear voice

The Word for today:
Romans 3:21-31
mark this:
Through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20)
Paul asks this question in Romans 3:1:
What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? (Romans 3:1)
Paul's answer:
Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. (Romans 3:2)
We might ask the same question:
What advantage is there in reading the Bible and going to church?
And the answer is still the same:
Much in every way!
The only thing that will redeem any man in the eyes of God is faith in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, God said,
"When I see the blood I will pass over." (Exodus 12:13)
That blood in Exodus is a prefigurement of the blood of the cross. If God sees that we have placed our trust in Jesus' sacrifice for our sins, he will forgive us.
His forgiveness is granted on the sole basis of Jesus' blood. He will not ask us if we belonged to a church, or got baptized, or read the Bible, or went to Sunday school. So if those things don't save us, is there any value in them?
Let me say it again: Much in every way!
When we read the Bible, or go to a church where the Word of God is preached and taught, it can make all the difference.
None of these things in themselves can make us right before God. But the Bible will point out our need for God, and then point the way to the blood of His cross.
So the advantage of our interaction with God's Word is summed up in Romans 3:20:
Through the law we become conscious of sin.
The advantage of having God's Word is also summed up in a well-known story called "The Emperor's New Clothes," by Hans Christian Anderson:
A certain emperor was fond of appearances. So when some clever swindlers (posing as philosophers) offered to weave him a rare and costly garment, he was receptive to their offer. He was especially intrigued by their promise that the garment would be invisible to all but the wise and pure of heart. So the emperor commissioned the new clothes at great expense, and the con men sat before empty looms, pretending to be weaving.
Soon the emperor's curiosity was such that he sent his chief counselor to see how things were progressing. Seeing no cloth on the busy looms, and not wanting to be thought unwise or impure of heart, the official returned with a report of the fabulous beauty of the cloth. When the weavers asked for even more money, the emperor sent his second most important counselor, who returned with another glowing report. Next the emperor himself went. Seeing nothing, but not wanting to appear unwise, he too proclaimed the clothing magnificent and gave the weavers medals!
When the day of the grand parade arrived, the con men dressed the emperor in his nakedness and then skipped town. As the emperor paraded before his people in the altogether, the entire populace joined in praise of his beautiful clothes--lest they be thought of as stupid and impure. Thus the absurd parade continued, until in a moment of quietness a child was heard to say, "The emperor has no clothes!"
At once everyone knew the truth, including the emperor. An honest remark by a child who did not know enough to keep his mouth shut stripped away the pretense of an entire nation.
Without God's Word, we hear only the word of the world, which conspires to tell us that our "garment" will suffice. The word of the world is a lie, an echo of Eden, which seeks to pull God down to our level, or push us up to his. If that word is all we hear, we remain naked without knowing it:
You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17)
But God's Word tells us that our righteousness is as filthy rags (1), and that only those clothed in the righteousness purchased at the cross of Christ can live forever with God:
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. (Revelation 3:18)
If there is no open Bible in your life--in your hand, in your home and, yes, in your church--then you live, as it were, in a city without the one clear voice which told the emperor he had no clothes.
(1) Isaiah 64:6

Friday, October 20, 2017

sometimes talk isn't cheap

The Word for today:
Romans 3:1-20
mark this:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (from Romans 3:23-26)
Yesterday, we wrote that only the cross can make sense of seemingly irreconcilable ideas in the Bible. We pointed to Romans 1:17 and 1:18, back-to-back verses which would logically nullify one another, were it not for the cross.
Then we pointed to Numbers 14:18, which twists our intellects into pretzels, were it not made coherent by the cross.
Today we see one more example of a scripture which renders our logic useless:
God is both just and justifier... (Romans 3:26)
"God is just" means that he enforces the distinction between right and wrong by rewarding the former and punishing the latter.
"God is justifier" means that despite my sin, he sees me just-as-if-I were Jesus!
So how can God be both just and justifier? Because the cross dissolved the contradiction.
God can't forgive like we do. When we say, "I forgive you," what we mean is that we will overlook a transgression.
But that's something God can't do! If he were to overlook the distinction between right and wrong, then he would nullify his moral authority and effectively cease to be God.
God can't just wink at sin, because the wages of sin must be paid (Romans 6:23; Ezekiel 18:20). With this in mind, we can no longer get so familiar with some "familiar" verses. Consider Jesus' remark to the Pharisees when they questioned his ability to forgive sin:
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"--he said to the paralytic-- "I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home." (Mark 2:8-11)
Jesus, we're generally taught, was illustrating the principle that talk is cheap--but that the proof of the pudding is in the visible miracle, when the paralytic rises and walks home.
But I don't teach it quite that way, because throughout scripture we see instances where diabolical forces can exhibit miraculous powers (1).  Meanwhile, only God can authoritatively say "Your sins are forgiven"-- and only because he paid the price.
Sometimes, talk isn't cheap.
(1) For examples, see Exodus 7:11; 7:22; 8:7; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10; Revelation 13:14; 16:14.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

I never understood the caption until I saw the picture

The Word for today:
Romans 2:17-29
Rightly or wrongly, I've been accused of having deep scriptural insight. I sort of play along with my accusers because their accusations momentarily bolster my puny ego.
But here's a revelation that God has confirmed and reconfirmed: if it weren't for His Cross, I wouldn't be able to understand anything about His Word. And neither would you.
The Bible--all of it--can be thought of as the caption to the picture of the cross. I know it's a long caption, but without the picture we wouldn't understand a word.
For an example of how intellectually (let alone spiritually!) lost we'd be without the cross, I refer you to these back-to-back verses from Romans chapter 1:
For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, "The righteous by faith will live." (verse 17)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. (verse 18)
The righteousness of God is revealed / the wrath of God is revealed--back-to-back, simultaneously. How's a man to understand?
God's Word in general and the book of Romans in particular is just too much for us to comprehend, unless we run every idea past the cross.
For it was at the cross that the righteousness of God was given to every believer at the very same time the wrath of God was being poured out on God Himself. The cross is the only way to make any sense out of seemingly irreconcilable verses like this one:
The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Numbers 14:18)
Without the cross, we'd be thoroughly lost!  The cross is not only the one way to salvation, but it is also the one window that is open to spiritual enlightenment.
So don't scratch your head over the complexities of the book of Romans.  Just take every idea to the cross, and it will all come into focus.
And pretty soon, people will be accusing you of deep scriptural insight! Enjoy their accusations for a while, but then you must confide to them your secret--The Secret of the Cross.
You must admit to one and all that you never understood the caption, until you saw the picure.