Sunday, November 22, 2015

He is Jealous for Me

    To begin, I must explain the absence of posts this month. I have been out of town, sick, and extremely busy off and on this month. So posting on either of my blogs has been delegated to another time! To top that off, this week has been a very rough week on me.

    The line from Tenth Avenue North's song "Worn" describes me very well right now. "I'm tired; I'm worn; my heart is heavy from the work it takes to keep on beating." Life just seems to drag on and on, with struggles popping up everywhere.

     But tonight a line from one of my favorite songs hit me hard. "How He loves" by John Mark McMillan is one of my all time favorite songs (don't me started about David Crowder. Suffice to say, you haven't heard "How He loves" until you've gotten Crowder's version out of your head so you can fully enjoy McMillan's). It starts off with the line, "He is jealous for me."

    On a night tonight when I'm struggling with being down after a long week of struggles, those words and that concept are like a breeze across my face. He's jealous for me. His love for me is so relentless and strong that He pursued me. Me, specifically. He wanted me. He desired me. He is jealous for me.

    God, the almighty God of the universe, is jealous for me. He yearns for fellowship with me. He desires me. It's an incredible thought. He isn't tolerating me or just putting up with me because He said He would. His desire for me isn't the grudging fulfillment of a promise, but the joyful yearning of the One who created me, who knows me more intimately than I know myself.

    He is jealous for me. God is jealous for me. Your Father is jealous for you. He is yearning for you. He desires you. It's an incredible thought, isn't it?

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Key that Unlocked Grace

    When I first began embracing the doctrines of grace and studying theology for myself, I was attending the same church I do now, a traditional, conservative Baptist church. The turning point when I began to change from my formulaic thinking was a particular concept that has become the cornerstone of my disagreement with most of the messages I see and hear about grace today. With this concept comes most of my beliefs about my standing with God and my opposition of anything related to works salvation or works righteousness.

    The idea is the imputed righteousness of Christ. Let me start this off with a question. When was the last time you heard a sermon on this topic? Okay, step closer. When was the last time you heard this phrase even mentioned in church? One more step closer. Do you even know what it means? If you don't, you, my friend, are in for a treat tonight!

     We hear salvation described very frequently when we're kids as "Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins." And while the phrase is strictly true, it sadly leaves us with an incomplete view of what salvation is and means. We realize we're sinners, and we realize that I'm no longer in danger of hell. But we still miss a pivotal point.

     But the problem is here. We understand that our sin forces us to have a deficit with God, but when the atonement is presented as simply payment, then it doesn't fully communicate grace. We leave with the idea that salvation deletes by debt and brings me to zero in God's eyes, no longer in debt, but neutral rather than righteous.

     This was my understanding of salvation for years. It was also why I misunderstood the idea of God's grace for so long. My view of salvation was that my salvation in Christ paid my debt, and what happened next was on my shoulders. Now I'm free to do right or wrong, and that is where my standing with God comes in. Since I'm neutral, now God is proportionately pleased or displeased by my actions; when I do good, God adds it to the good side of the balance, when I sin, He adds it to the bad side. His favor depends on which side wins out. Sure, I knew my salvation wasn't dependent on it, but God's favor was.

     But that definition alone is a crystal clear example of merited favor, favor dependent on my actions, which is exactly the opposite of true grace. And that's one reason why this concept is so pivotal to understanding radical grace. To understand how far reaching and how all-encompassing grace truly is, we have to understand just how far it goes in my salvation.

     The clearest passage about this doctrine is 2 Cor. 5:21, "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Let's look at this passage a little more closely.

     Paul is speaking of our salvation found in Christ and what exactly Christ was doing on the cross in fairly clear, illuminating language. Jesus wasn't just "taking the punishment for our sins." He was literally becoming sin on the cross. The nature of Christ became sin. Christ was being punished for sin that He had not committed but were now committed to His charge, willingly.

     And the corollary holds. If Christ became literal sin, the rest of the passage that speaks of us becoming the righteousness of Christ is also just as true. We aren't made figuratively righteous. We aren't just made pretty much righteous, or righteous enough. We are made righteous, pronounced innocent before God, because we have been given righteousness not our own.

     A believer after salvation is not just a sinner brought to a balance of neutral in God's eyes, or simply another person who is a sinner but is no longer going to hell because Jesus died "for our punishment." That view is incomplete. It leaves us clear of hell, but short of heaven. We are, in fact, made righteous while still sinners. We still sin, and those sins, past, present, and future, are thrown onto a holy Jesus Christ who has been made sin for us.

     When I first heard this idea, I didn't believe it was true. It was simply to radical. It was too far out for me to accept. It took me a couple months to actually come to grips with the idea that this was what the Bible taught. In Christ, I am perfect. In Christ, I am sinless. In Christ, I am viewed with as much favor as is possible. I can be no more despised if I sin or more cherished if I don't; my status with God is certain and set, based on the unchangeable nature of Christ's blood and His sacrifice alone.

     It's a beautiful thought, one that thrusts the praise for my salvation forever out of my hands and into the hands of the One who has so wonderfully redeemed me. It is His righteousness I stand clothed in, not mine. It is His goodness that grants me audience with God, not mine. It was His blood that was shed, not mine. It was His intercession before God's throne, then and now, that continually grants me growth in grace, not mine.

     My sin is His. His righteousness is mine. Can you understand now why grace has been called a scandal by so many? Can you see now why so many deny these teachings, claiming that if believers only knew them, there would be no striving for holiness? But how wrong they are!

     A heart chasing holiness out of love, pure, changeless love is more beautiful and more steadfast by far than a heart chasing holiness out of fear of judgment or hope for reward. In the first, Christ remains the center, the star of the redemptive play and our continuing sanctification; in the second, the emphasis drifts from Christ as Savior to us as perfectors.

     That is the scandal of grace. That is the very doctrine that will forever make some believers scream from the sidelines "License!" when they should be calling "Freedom!" Not freedom to sin, but freedom from the bondage of sin! Freedom to approach our Father unashamed! Freedom to embrace my standing with God, no longer as the hard Judge of every motive and intention of my heart but as the Father who offered His very Son for my redemption.

     This is what grace is. It's not license. It's not "grace abused". It's true freedom. It's freedom that is found in the person and finished work of Christ on my behalf, a freedom that's both undeserved and forever unmerited. No work of mine could earn it then; no work of mine after can make me deserving. I stand forever in the debt of a relentlessly merciful God.

     When I got this concept in my head, my journey toward an understanding of grace was sure. Yeah, there was uncertainty and certainly plot twists, but I had had a taste of life! I had a taste of what it meant to "rest in Christ", to stop striving to earn my way further into Christ's favor.

      I am His.

      He is mine.

      That is enough.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Ramblings of a Frustrated, Confused High Schooler

    I've spent the last couple nights researching colleges since I will be beginning that step of life next fall. Since I intend to pursue some sort of Biblical or Theological Studies major, the theology of whatever Bible college I decide to go to is important to me. One of the ways I have begun observing the practical theology of a college is by reading their student handbook.

    Allow me to run down a rabbit trail for a moment. Everyone has doctrinal theology and practical theology. Doctrinal theology is your beliefs-about-God system; your practical theology is how that affects your life. It's possible to have phenomenal doctrinal theology (head knowledge) and fail miserably in the area of practical theology (practice and behavior). It's much less likely (and maybe impossible), but I suppose it is theoretically possible for someone to have poor doctrinal theology and good practical theology (their beliefs about God cause good practice and behavior even though their actual knowledge about God is skewed).

    So, for example, I read the college's doctrinal statement to see their doctrinal theology. This is their belief system. I read the college's student handbook to see their practical theology. How do their beliefs about God affect how they live their lives and expect their students to live their lives? The last couple of day's have been an eye-opening experience in that area.

    I'm a conservative Christian. In fact, strictly speaking, I'm even a fundamentalist (I believe the fundamentals of Christianity, such as 1. salvation by grace alone, 2. the virgin birth, 3. the bodily resurrection of Christ, etc.). However, I don't exactly fit the mold of a fundamentalist, conservative Christian, particularly not the stereotype that next comes to mind if you know that I'm homeschooled, raised in family integrated Baptist churches for most of my life, and have most of my Scripture memorization done in the KJV.

    This makes looking for a college somewhat complicated. For example, I am probably too conservative to be comfortable somewhere like TCU or DBU. At the same time, I would get expelled from BJU or PCC in a matter of weeks, most likely. So in researching colleges, part of my aim is to find a college that I will neither be influenced wrongly toward liberalism or legalism.

    That was a long story just to get you to this point, but I have been stunned by the sheer number of rules some colleges are advocating! I am not going to name the names of the colleges I pulled these rules from, but just to name a few, these are some direct quotes from college handbooks.

     *Physical contact: On and off campus, physical contact between unmarried men and women is not allowed.

     *Men and women should guard their testimonies; they are not to be alone together in a classroom, rehearsal studio, or other room.

     *Students are not to patronize restaurants with a tavern or bar-like atmosphere or reputation or that do not have a dining room separate from live entertainment.

     *In this Christian college setting, care must be taken to avoid association with companies (Hollister, Abercrombie and Fitch, etc.), lifestyles, and trends that oppose Christian values, including gothic dress styles, tattoos, body piercings or ear piercings, and unnatural hair colors (e.g., pink, green, blue).

     *(Paraphrase) No tattoos, piercings, bracelets, or necklaces on guys; or facial hair on lower classmen. 

    Now, these schools have a perfect right to institute whatever rules they see fit on their campus (though many of these rules specifically said they applied off campus as well, which was an interesting dynamic. What, is campus police going to follow you home on spring break?), and students are perfectly free to attend these colleges. I have multiple friends attending these colleges, and many more destined to go in the next couple of years: good, godly young men who want to serve Christ. 

     But to me, I'm there for a Bible degree. My purpose at college is to be equipped in Biblical study techniques, theological viewpoints, Biblical languages, etc. I'm not a liberal looking at these colleges; I'm a fellow conservative observing these colleges. And one phrase comes to my mind: standards.

     I got no issue with standards (despite what you may think from reading up to this point!). As I said, these colleges are welcome to implement whichever standards they wish on their campus. Individuals are welcome to implement whichever standards they wish in their personal lives. But I do believe these standards allow a quick glance into the attitude of the college's practical theology: a theology of standards and lines drawn in the sand.

     These extra rules don't bring us closer to Christ; they separate us from the world, negate much of our influence and understanding on our own culture, and may even promote an attitude of self-righteousness (which is possible in any setting, liberal or conservative, I admit). That is not my desire in a school. In fact, I would like to do the exact opposite both in my Bible college experience and my church experience away from home for the first time: involvement with the world for the purpose of impacting our peers and lost friends for Christ, and learning in an atmosphere of humility, not spiritual arrogance born of higher standards and more enlightened spiritual eyes.

     Do good things comes from these colleges? Absolutely. Every year, hundreds of students graduate these colleges with a genuine love for God and a genuine passion for Him having learned many great things. But my question is whether or not the extra standards we're generating are actually keeping us from the world or the world from us. Is this college a place where my beliefs will be challenged Biblically, or where my beliefs (as long as they are consistent with the outward appearance the faculty wishes to convey) are left virtually untouched and doctrine considered far less important than practice and outward appearance? Furthermore, will this college allow me to make an impact for Christ on those around me by being a part of my culture, or am I simply a pretty cover photo for the school's website, another clean-shaven, hymn-singing conservative?

     Yes, I'm confused. I'm confused by the reasons behind the hard lines in the sand that we Christians draw. Just this week, I found that I was ineligible to enter a preaching contest I was going to sign up for at a Bible college because I have facial hair. Being stubborn, I refuse to shave simply so I can obey a stupid rule, so I will not be preaching, but the line drawn once again astounds me. The emphasis on the outward, on the dress standards, the hair color, the tattoos, the facial hair, the preferred musical style, or restaurant choice has me flustered.

    Yes, it also has me frustrated. I watch as friends of mine, rightfully cautious of the liberality of many college influences, swing hard right to avoid them and instead swing straight into a rigid spirituality that Christ never taught. The options today are not (I hope) either let loose liberality or strict conservativism, complete with impassable drawn lines between us and the very people we're called to reach.

     Yes, I also believe that observing a school's practical theology can tell me a lot about their doctrinal theology, no matter what is said in their doctrinal statement. Yes, I believe the hard lines of extra Biblical mandates do show an attitude of legalism. And yes, excessively strict standards are enough to drive me away from even considering some colleges. Being in a stifling religious environment affects you, rarely positively, I think it is safe to say more often negatively. 

     I do not have a particular reason why I wrote this post beyond to vent some of the feelings I have been having the last few days as my frustration at the colleges my circles recommend I attend has mounted. I truly believe that while some may decide to go to these colleges, they should go fully prepared to encounter legalism and moralism, demanding outward conformity over inward sanctification. 

     I do not intend this to be bashing toward certain colleges, the reason I didn't name any by name. I have no grudge against any college. But as a high schooler trying to go to a college that neither abuses grace toward liberalism or toward legalism, I'm frustrated. Rant over. :)

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Sovereignty of God

    There are few topics that are debated with same the vehemence that the sovereignty of God vs the free will of man discussion brings about. I happen to be someone who holds that both the absolute sovereignty God and the limited free will of man walk hand-in-hand throughout Scripture, yet I still find myself in discussions and debates (honestly, I often start them :) on the sovereignty of God.

    Why is this an important topic? I mean, really, why does it matter? It matters because when we say we "trust" God, whether for protection or anything else similar, we assume that He is at work on earth and that He does have a plan that He can accomplish. We pray because we believe God does, in fact, involve Himself in the affairs of earth.

    This is not the place for a raging debate on free will and God's sovereignty. Suffice to say, we see in Scripture verses that speak of man's free will, and others that speak of God's sovereignty. I will admit that I do not understand where the two mesh, but since both are found in the Bible, I must trust that they do. The focus of this post, however, is on what to me is one of the most comforting doctrines in the Bible, God's absolute sovereignty. It does not demand that free will no longer exist; it simply shows the affairs of earth from heavenly perspective. While what happens here on earth may appear to be simply choices made by men, an examination of the Bible quickly makes it clear that much more often (if not in every case), it is in fact, God's guiding hand at work rather than simply men dictating their own fates.

    There are several passages I want to examine. First, Daniel 4:34-35 is the statement of a heathen king who has been brought low before a mighty God. Nebuchadnezzer, the most powerful of the Babylonian kings, is brought to his knees (literally) before God because of the pride of his heart for seven years. At the end of seven years, he is returned to his senses (the full story is in the entirety of chapter 4) and reinstated to his throne in Babylon. He immediately sends out a letter to all the provinces he rules over which is closed with these words.

    "For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, 'What have You done?'"

    That is an incredible statement about the incredible, sovereign hand of God. He doesn't just have power to be involved in world affairs or enforce His will if He wanted to; He actively "does according to His will." Not just sometimes, or occasionally. It's an incredible thought!

    The second passage is in Psalms (No great surprise there. David seemed to understand the greatness of God better than most.) 33:9-11, "For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart form generation to generation."

    David draws an interesting parallel between God's plans and man's. Man's are at God's whim. He cancels their plans at will and frustrates their strategies whenever He pleases. On the other hand, His counsel is unstoppable, and His plans have stayed the same for generations. 

    One of my favorite testimonies of God's sovereignty is found in Job 1:8, 2:5 where Satan himself comes before God before being able to touch Job. God is so sovereign on earth that Satan himself needs permission from God before engaging God's servant Job! Another favorite is in Prov. 16:33, where Solomon identifies that even how a lot falls into a man's lap is from God's hand, not random chance or coincidence.

    The undeniable end conclusion? God is sovereign. "For I know that the Lord is great and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps." (Ps. 135:5-6) God is God. He does what He pleases. Whatever we in our free will may decide is subject to change whenever and however God pleases.

    Now, this realizations brings two thoughts to my mind. First, if God is absolutely sovereign, why do bad things happen here? Frankly, God does not grace us with an answer here. God's omnipotence dictates that it is within His power to change the world and men's hearts to only do and desire good. But God has not chosen to do that.

    While we may not understand why, it is a Biblical fact that while man may try to get God to play by our rules, God rarely does. For example, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, the thieves beside Him and the crowds around Him taunted Him by mocking His power, demanding He pull Himself off the cross and save both Him and them! Yes, He certainly had the power, but He Himself saw the bigger picture that the crowd did not see: He was procuring a redemption for His people! Yes, in our limited human understanding, we would have rathered Him jump off the cross and extend His righteous anger upon the Roman soldiers, the Sanhedrin, and the gathered crowds! But God's mind is bigger than ours. In the larger picture, the goodness of God dictates His decisions, not man's desires.

    Psalm 115:2-3 is another example of this. "Why should the nations say, 'Where, now, is their God?' But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever pleases Him." The nations around may challenge Israel and taunt, demanding a sign, demanding to see their God. But God isn't required to satisfy man. God simply does what pleases Himself, whether that is to show Himself to man or to hide Himself.

    But another thought then enters my mind from studying this topic. If we believe that God is sovereign, then literally nothing can hurt us that has not come from God's sovereign hand. This truth shouldn't spur us to inaction; it should spur us to greater action! God's sovereignty means that He offers equal protection to us in a suburb of Atlanta or a suburb of Mogadishu. His will rules and reigns. Our number of days is in God's hands. The trials, the tribulations, the temptations are all things God can stop if He sees fit. I daresay He frequently does so.

    But the ones He, in His sovereignty, doesn't stop, are the ones we know aren't meaningless. They aren't purposeless. A sovereign God allowed them to happen, because they are a part of a plan He is accomplishing throughout the earth.

    We serve a God with all power, deserving of all glory. And as servants of God, we know that our days, our lives, our circumstances, our struggles are all in the hands of God. We can trust Him. We can rely on His goodness in His sovereign. Thank God!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

An Interesting Memory

    I do have some longer posts in the works, but pardon my recent grouping of short posts and videos. I simply have been preoccupied by other things. Today, I was looking up the old Irish song "Bridgit Flynn" because I remember my oldest brother playing it years and years ago. I found this version, and it was incredible! If anybody else likes Irish music, maybe take a second and listen to it.