Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What is Dependent on God’s Word?

That is, if not for the truth and power of God’s Word, what would we be missing?
1. life change that is more than cosmetic
2. a certain future shaped by promise
3. confidence in the midst of confusion

Let’s look at the first paragraph of Titus again: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began, and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;” (Titus 1:1-3 ESV)

We’ve covered (in previous messages and posts) faith-knowledge, and the fact that an eternal God who plans our eternal future chose people for faith in eternity past. Now we come to this subject of the truth. This idea is linked in this first paragraph to the character of God (He never lies), to the nature of much of His revelation (promise), and to ways that He has expressed Himself by Word and words, through His Son and messengers. I’ve also marked in my study Bible in the letter to Titus the many references to God’s Word, teaching and doctrine, so that we must conclude that when Titus was sent to “put things in order” (1:5), the use of God’s Word was absolutely critical.

1. God’s Word is absolutely necessary for life change.
If God’s Word in its truth and power is missing from my life, I will never change. Yes, of course I can change cosmetically. I can change the color of my hair. I can rearrange the furniture. I can change certain patterns and habits. I can re-invent myself in various ways, maybe even learn an accent. But I cannot change at the deepest level. I cannot change my heart. God does that through His Word.

And this is where I know, deep down, that I need to change. This is where the frustration and sadness really comes, when I see the kind of person that I really am, whether it has to do with self-centeredness, or lack of love, or twisted motives. I can paste a smile on. I can’t, by myself, change my heart.

So merely educating myself in the latest psychologies or motivating myself with some best-selling self-help is still only cosmetic. It is like adding volumes to a library that does not contain the answer. Dewey and his decimals do not hold the answers for the problem of a sinful heart.

Also, will-power, for all that it can do (cf. Tower of Babel) fails on two levels. It, also, does not change the heart. And it is guilty of producing unintended consequences. How many cancers are the result of a desperate will-power? How much mental dis-ease? How much nervous exhaustion, leading to an inability to rest or relax? When we saddle our own wills with the burden of responsibility for accomplishing things that only God can do, we will tend toward destruction and debilitation.

And so, if I truly desire heart change in my life, what will I do? I will bow my knees and devote my attention to God’s Word. I will read it prayerfully and ask that God’s Spirit would take its truth and imbed it in my heart, even as I purpose to submit and obey what I find there.

Further, if I fail to spend time with God’s Word, I must honestly admit that I really don’t want to change. I will, in that case, be telling God that I would rather do things my own way, and please leave my heart alone. If I neglect God’s Word, I am proclaiming my rebellion against being God’s person, whom He would reform and re-make into Christ’s likeness.

2. God’s Promise has the Power to Shape the Future
Secondly, God’s Word has the power to shape my future, since He so often speaks by way of promise. All other words, other than God’s Word, come across as so much propaganda. Much of it is wishful thinking, and all of it is subject to change.

But God’s promises are certain, so much so, that once He utters the promise, the outcome is as sure as though it had already happened. Think of Abraham, to whom God said, “I will make you a great nation.” That’s a promise, and it implies that there would be a son. Even though it would be 25 more years before a son was born, the certainty of there being such a son was absolute. Further, even though twice Abraham tried to give his wife away, God would not allow His promise to be sabotaged.

Another promise is repeated many times throughout Scripture: “I will be with you.” This promise was repeated to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and many times over, even to us, when Jesus ends his Great Commission with, “for lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This shapes our future, so that we know that we are never alone. And so we, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, make our decisions based on this certainty. These young men were faced with the test of bowing to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, or being thrown into the fiery furnace. But the promise of God so shaped their future, that they were willing to enter the furnace, whether or not they would be delivered, knowing that they would certainly not be alone. And Nebbie himself was forced to admit that there appeared a fourth figure in the furnace.

If I fail to lay hold of the promises of God, then I consign myself to a life of good (or, not-so-good) intentions and wishful thinking. I may prove to be “the captain of my soul,” but it will be a soul that never reaches port. Only God’s Word can safely lay a course for tomorrow. These promises deserve memorization and meditation.

3. God’s Word is the only Source of Confidence in a Confusing World
Finally, we can live confidently in a confusing world only if we commit ourselves to the touchstone which is God’s Word. We live in a world full of experts who do not know what they are talking about. Week by week, we are warned against, and then advised toward, eating eggs and apples. We cannot agree on the condition of the atmosphere above us or the fossil fuels beneath us. And now we see a bunch of women carrying around little ugly dogs, just because Paris Hilton did it. I need direction that I can trust, that keeps me from being “tossed to and fro by every wind.” Where can I find the help that I need?

In the truth, in which God has made promises, and now has made available to us. And God does not lie.

Monday, June 16, 2008

How Can Cretans be Christians? (2)

In the first article, we found that Titus 1:1 makes clear that it is faith-knowledge that can make Cretans to be Christians. But the next question is, “How does one get this faith-knowledge?” The answer is at least partly contained in the phrase, “the faith of God’s elect” (Titus 1:1).

We are in the midst of an election year. Candidates will promise all kinds of things, hoping to convince and compel fickle voters to pledge their electoral commitment. We will find that the candidates are willing to say and do almost anything to collect votes. Let’s be clear here: God is not running for office. He is not up for election. God is the One who elects.

People often counter: But don’t we have free will? Jonathan Edwards thought so (The Freedom of the Will), if I read him correctly. My illustration (gained from reading him, but for which he bears no responsibility) is as follows: My car has a free wheel

That’s right. It has a steering wheel. And that free wheel determines the direction the car goes. But the free wheel is also stupid. It is completely dependent upon the character of the person behind it. And if the Bible is clear about anything, it is clear that the hearts of men and women are sinful – so much so, that apart from the grace of God, not a single one of us would direct our free wills to turn to God. There would be not one single Christian if it was up to human free will as directed by sinful hearts.

Let’s think of a Bible illustration. God had promised to Abraham lasting life through the gift of a son. So was Isaac, born when Abe was 100, the product of Abraham and Sarah? According to Romans 4:19, not really. There was a time, 13 years before Isaac’s birth, when Abraham attempted to assist God in the fulfillment of God’s plan and purpose. The result was Ishmael, and Abraham could say, “Look what I did,” and God said, “No!” But by the time Isaac came around, the verdict on Abraham was “as good as dead,” and the description of Sarah’s fertility was “barrenness.” And guess what? A baby was born – a gift from God, wholly of God.

We sometimes think that in salvation God gives the grace, and we supply the faith. But just as God supplied both the seed and fertile egg for the life of Isaac, so also God supplies both the grace and the faith for spiritual life. When we are born again, our first response is that cry of faith in Christ, similar to a baby’s first cry, and yet no one thinks that the baby was the cause of his/her own existence, or contributed to his/her birth in any way other than showing up.

When Jesus spoke those phrases in John 6: “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (v.37); “No on can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him” (v.44); and “no one come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (v.65) – the people grumbled (v. 41), and the disciples grumbled (v.61). Why did they grumble? Perhaps for two reasons:

On the one hand, and more generally, people resist the idea of a God in charge. It is strange, because if God is not in charge, then can we really call him God at all? But on the other hand, people grumbled because Jesus was describing the radical nature of the relationship that one must have with him in order to be raised at the last day, that is, to have eternal life. We must get Christ into us somehow, almost like ingesting and digesting. We need to get him into us, almost to be us.

That is not the kind of relationship that most people want with Jesus. They want a mutual consent relationship. You give me bread, and I’ll give you a measure of loyalty. You make me happy, and I’ll attend church, or give away something, or give up something. You make me promises, and I’ll vote for you as Lord and Savior.

But remember, neither God nor Jesus are running for office. No, that is not Biblical Christianity. Paul talks to Titus about Cretans who are wonderfully changed by a radical relationship with Jesus Christ that they could never have come up with on their own. It must have been something that God did, because He chose them for salvation.

This subject brings up so many questions. I’ve already answered the “whosoever will” questions. The answer is, that the world is filled with “whosoever won’t” kind of people. But what about this response then: if God is going to do all the choosing, then why bother to pray or witness?

The answer is that God is pleased to use means to accomplish His ends. And if God is pleased to use my prayers or my witness to be a vehicle or instrument in causing a light to shine into a darkened heart, or in causing spiritual truth to be apprehended by an obstinate mind, so that for the first time a person sees Christ clearly, or understands the Gospel for the very first time, though they may have heard it many times before – then praise the Lord. And what a privilege to be involved in His eternal plan and purpose. I need not worry about who is elect and who is not. But I know that, were not God so good and gracious, all would be condemned.

How Can Cretans be Christians? (1)

I ask this, especially in light of Paul’s description to Titus of the society to which he was ministering, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” (Titus 1:12 ESV)

Cretans can become Christians because of the faith-knowledge that has taken hold of them (1:1). According to J.I. Packer, this is “a kind of knowledge of which God is both giver and content.” “It is a Spirit-given acquaintance with divine realities, given through acquaintance with God’s Word” (p. 57 of “What Did the Cross Achieve?” in In My Place Condemned He Stood, Packer and Dever, 2007.

It is the kind of faith that transformed Paul’s perspective in Galatians 2:20, where he says “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is the kind of knowledge that Paul aspires to in Philippians 3:10, where he says “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.”

People with this faith-knowledge, used together in Ephesians 4:13, will be marked by the priority of Christ in their lives, more so than by commitments to programs and personalities. They, in short, are enamored with Jesus. The two words are also used together in Philemon v.6, where it brings about counter-cultural behaviors that will surprise those who live around you, so much so that they will probably ask you the reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15). In Titus 1:1, this faith-knowledge allows people to see and appreciate God who has an eternal plan and purpose.

Now, to avoid confusion, let’s try to define this faith-knowledge more finely:

What Faith-Knowledge Is Not:
1. it is not rationalism or unaided reason (divine realities are not merely higher thoughts that Cretans can sit down and figure out)
2. it is not experientialism or emotionalism (not just a hyped-up state, the result of a Cretan revival meeting)
3. it is not the exclusive property of either the intellectual elite; or the religious elite (this faith-knowledge did not belong merely to Paul, or Titus, or even just the appointed elders, but to the common, Cretan Christians)

What is Faith-Knowledge?
1. it is revealed insight, graciously unveiled by God
2. it is relational and covenantal, thus enduring and binding
3. it is spiritual and transformational, changing from the inside out

Based on the three points above (What is Faith-Knowledge?), here are corresponding practical implications:

Practical Implications:
1. do I demonstrate a practical dependence on God’s revealed truth? Do I read, study, discuss and apply God’s Word.
2. do I love God and His Word? Am I captivated by Christ?
3. am I a changed person? Am I a changing person? Am I committed to being shaped by God and His Word?