Friday, December 18, 2009

The Spirit and Sexual Sin

We live in a culture that flaunts sexuality. Unbelievers who come to Christ have likely been stained and affected by these practices, and those who profess faith in Christ are commonly falling into practices that are contrary to our calling in Christ.

On the other hand, we believe that for followers of Christ, the Spirit of God has worked to save and is continuing to work to sanctify. Fellow Christians desire to be used by God in the progressive maturing and perfecting of those who profess Christ and desire to serve Him.

The material in 1 Thessalonians speaks both to the issue of the Spirit in the lives of believers, and the problem of sexual sin. I will try to weave these together.

Biblical Foundation

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 is perhaps the clearest and most direct New Testament passage that calls for sexual purity. Paul places this aspect of the believer’s walk (v.1) in the category of sanctification (3:13; 4:3,4,7), and attributes the power for behavioral change to the Holy Spirit (v.8).

Other references to the Holy Spirit in 1 Thessalonians show that this Spirit powerfully brings radical change of heart and life orientation at conversion (1:5, and evidenced in 1:9,10). This same Spirit is involved in examining a believer’s heart (2:4) and in applying God’s will and Word (2:13) to his/her life. But the purifying influence of this Spirit can also be hindered (5:19) by neglecting/despising the living Word of God in lesson and/or application (5:20), and by tolerating/adopting evil influences.

So we expect that the effective work of the Spirit in the believer’s life will be brought to bear against practices of sexual sin. It will not merely be tolerated or controlled. We expect that the ongoing influence of the Spirit will defeat practices of sexual sin.

As we look at the nature and demands of gospel ministry in 1 Thessalonians 2, we can see how sexual sin, along with other sins, will prohibit a minister from fully giving himself to those to whom he is to minister. He (or she) will be holding back in selfish ways. Sexual sin trains one in self-seeking rather than in self-giving (2:8); sexual sin steals personal and spiritual resources that should be dedicated to ministry (2:13, day and night ministry), including time, energy, enthusiasm and imagination. We conclude that sexual sin is a hindrance to the gospel ministry, just as are Christ-haters (2:16) and Satan himself (2:18).

Practical Application

So given the fact that all of us are sinners, and that it is possible that many of us have incidences of sexual sin in our history, here are some conclusions that I believe are consistent with an expectation that the Spirit intends a sanctifying work in our lives.

We should expect and demand from one another
a) Unflinching honesty concerning sin, and
b) Clear actions taken that are the fruit of repentance.

Honesty Concerning Sin:
• Telling the truth
• Telling the whole truth
• A refusal to minimize the sin
• A refusal to blame
• A refusal to make excuses

The Fruit of Repentance:
• The follower of Christ takes iniative in dealing with sin.

When a person is caught in their sin, as opposed to taking the initiative to deal with their sin, it is nearly impossible to discern the fruit of repentance. This does not mean that a person who is caught in sin is not repentant. It just means that we cannot be sure if they are sorry for their sin, or sorry they were caught. So we desire to see actions that take the initiative in dealing with sin even before it is exposed.

That means that you and I must take initiative with our sins, whether they be sexual sins or some other category. Don’t just cover it up. Don’t try to manage it. Attack it. Take the initiative in battling that behavior in your life.

This does not mean that you are trusting in your own actions in order to accomplish sanctification. No, it is the Spirit who sanctifies. Pray that the Spirit would give victory. But don’t just pray and ask to change after experiencing some failure, expecting that the Spirit will work in spite of your actions and patterns. Make and plan, and work the plan, and improve the plan – but trust in the Spirit to do what only He can do.

• We are to pay careful attention to the underlying cause of our sins (why is/was this temptation to powerful for me?).

There is much material available that helps us to understand what is going on in our hearts that then is manifested in the form of sexual sin.

• There is careful attention paid to the circumstances in which failure may occur, and how to avoid those circumstances. Have any roadblocks been placed to make a return to sin more difficult?

Again, there is much material available to guide us in practical steps that we can take that make sense.

• There has been care in establishing accountability.

• That a plan to deal with the sin is working, and that the individual has not stopped pursuing a plan that is effective.

• The individual has engaged in a walk with Christ which makes it obvious that he/she has a desire to love Christ more than he/she loves the sin.

The goal in all this is that we want to serve Christ with those who are walking with the Spirit. To be engaged in sexual sin, and sins of other sorts, is to walk another path. We are then walking in the flesh, not in the Spirit. A return to the path of walking with the Spirit requires that we be honest about our sins, and that we take clear, concrete actions that would drive a stake through the practice of sin and mortify the flesh.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Spirit Gives Joy

The powerful Spirit produces joy. We know this, because for the Thessalonian believers, they experienced joy, not only in favorable circumstances, but also when distressed: “having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit,” (1 Thessalonians 1:6 NAS95). The joy did not appear naturally, but rather, supernaturally. From a worldly point of view, there was no cause for joy. But something else was going on in the minds and hearts of these believers. Their eyes were opened to a new estimation of things. The value of the word had become greater than present comforts. The promise of future reward more than compensated for the risk or experience of present loss. What was gained was now more precious that what was lost.

I see a lack of joy in my Christian experience. I also see it in the lives of other believers. We are not persecuted. We do not suffer greatly. We engage in our commitments, and we do our duties. We plod along, and we exhibit faithfulness; but not joyfulness.

Why is this? If I looked only at 1 Thes 1, I might conclude that all we need is a good dose of tribulation to bring out the joy. But that is not what that text is saying. It is not the tribulation that produces the joy, but the Holy Spirit. And so the question has to be asked, “What am I doing to stifle the production of joy by the Holy Spirit?” And so I have gone searching, and find some answers in the following passages in which both the concept of “joy” and “Spirit” occur together.

In Acts 13:52, the Gentiles who had just recently heard the gospel and realized that it was good news, not just for others, but also for people like them, were “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” Their excitement and wonder at being accepted and included in God’s gracious plan that brings forgiveness of sins changed their view of all things, producing joy. Life could never again be the same. So much of the world around me is hell-bound. God’s electing grace should be shockingly refreshing. This can be spoiled by a sense of entitlement, as though God, for some reason, owed me a spot on the bus.

Romans 14: 17 says that “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Specifically, Paul has just said that a brother for whom Christ has died is more important and more dear to him than eating or not eating. It appears that if one trades out the importance of people for personal liberties or luxuries, then he may very well forego “righteousness and peace and joy.” Joy is experienced as one lives in light of these three facts: God is working His plan; people are highly valuable; and we are preparing for and investing in a drastically better future. Again, I lose joy when the biggest plan in view is what’s for lunch, or who’s doing music, or what’s on TV.

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13 NAS95) We see that the God of hope works in concert with the Spirit of power to produce “joy and peace in believing.” God is doing something strange and contrary to expectation. He is bringing together a people that unites old enemies. And the follower of Christ is challenged to continue in the acceptance of those who are not just like you, and who formerly may have been offensive or disgusting. You behave in this new way because you have been re-visioned, re-vised according to a new creation kind of existence, to which you are fastened by hope. And the joy that is mentioned seems to have in it a sense of adventure and a scent of anticipation. I lose the experience of joy when I focus upon the accomplishment of “old man” objectives as opposed to God’s heavenly purposes in His Son, in His church, and in His world.

In 2 Corinthians 7:13, Paul and Titus are rejoicing in the continuing faith of Corinthians Christians. Yes, life is hard – “conflicts without, fears within” (v.5) – but the fellowship, the comraderie of Christians who are on the same team and running the same race is sustaining, refreshing, and heart-lifting. As we see later in 1 Thessalonians 2:19,20, the fellowship with other believers is critical. If this “band of brothers” loses its sense of direction; if they begin to exist for no good purpose other than to endure – they will lose joy.

So, if it fits, make your own diagnosis. Why joylessness? What is at stake is more than a life lived in dullness and depression. Spiritual joy is linked also to peace and hope and love and fellowship. To be depleted in the area of joy is to be disabled in worship and witness and service.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What Power?

To what degree have we cast an image of the Spirit that is powerless, since that sits well with our own experience? We howl when we see individuals man-handle the Word and practice some form of eis-egesis (reading their viewpoints into the text) rather than ex-egesis (developing the text's conclusions from out of the text). And we are instantly critical of those who, evilly shaped by the culture around us, make God in our own image, into what we want Him to be, instead of us being re-made in His image, into what He wants us to be. But then, where is the outrage when we conceive of the Holy Spirit apart from the concept of power?

Gordon Fee shows at the end of his chapter on the use of the word "spirit" in his book, "God's Empowering Presence," that there is such a strong, explicit connection between "spirit" and "power" in so many texts, that, even when the word "spirit" is used without the word "power," we must still think about what power is being exercised; and, when the "power" is used without a direct reference to the Spirit, we would do well to think about how the Spirit is involved. The connection is that close. He does not say that every time one word or the other is used, that the author necessarily has the other in mind. He just says that there is a good chance of it.

In my mind, the Spirit is holy. He is active in our sanctification. The Spirit is the Comforter. He provides assurance and a sense of God's presence. The Spirit is a guide. He helps in discernment. He helps in our prayers. But in my experience, the Spirit is not powerful. Oh, I'm sure He can be, and that He has been at some times in some places. But not here and now. Not lately. My eyes have glossed over the strong Biblical evidences of the connection between Spirit and power that do not fit my experience. And I want my experience to conform to this Biblical portrait of God's Spirit whose activity is powerful.

I understand that the Spirit's power is different from the world's conceptions of power. While the world may base their definitions of power on military strength or economic leverage or political clout, the Spirit's power may reveal itself in an enduring faith, and in sacrificial love, and in an other-worldly hope that rejects would-be, easy-access saviors. These examples may seem benign, but even these are surprising and shocking. They are evidences that cannot be explained.

I also understand that the Spirit's power can be experienced just as much in the undertow as in the crashing wave. But in either case, it is still a power that is felt; a power that matters; a power that we must not do without.

Good, Old-Fashioned Bible Study

In reading Gordon Fee’s “God’s Empowering Presence,” the 2nd chapter is entitled “Preliminary Observations on Usage.” Someone needs to give poor Gordon some assistance on sexy chapter titles, because this one is not going to draw a crowd. It is most definitely not seeker-sensitive. It’s just good, old-fashioned Bible study.

First of all, it is careful study. Fee goes through usage by usage and analyzes both the grammar and logical issues. He charts them out and categorizes them. In so doing, he is able to refute an earlier theory that the use of the article (“the”) in the Greek text denotes a reference to the divine spirit, whereas the absence of the article suggests a reference to the human spirit. No, that doesn’t work. And he carefully shows his work.

We all need to be involved in careful Bible study. There are many aspects of such study, but one is to carefully look at the words that are used, and how the words are used. Yes, there has been a lot of attention given to the “big picture” of the Biblical narrative – some rendition of “creation, fall, redemption, consummation.” But the superstructure rests on the individual pieces of words and arguments. While it is possible to lose sight of the big picture because of an atomistic approach to the Bible, it is also possible to drift along above the text with some kind of Big Picture that does not attend to careful study.

Second, Fee challenges me about letting the Bible speak for itself. As the careful student looks at the words, he also seeks to follow the argument that is being constructed. Of course, grammar provides many of the needed clues. I have found that it is relatively easy to spend hours in studying words and making lists, but much more difficult to trace and describe an argument. And, as in the next point, I need to be very careful not to insert my argument for the author’s. Fee gives a great example of enduring Bible study that arrives at definitions and conclusions, not just data.

It is so easy to come to the text with preconceived notions about what it says before we let it speak. My 3rd note is a caution against demanding that the text answer my questions. An example of this is found in most of the treatments that I have read seeking to state the Bible’s position of divorce and remarriage. One after another of us have pressed Jesus’ statements (and Paul’s, and Moses’) to fit our questions rather than to grasp the point being made in context and letting that material work us over. I must try to listen for the questions that the author is answering. And they most likely are not the questions that I had in my mind when I started the study. I was reminded to come to the text and to listen.

How long has it been since you spent a couple of hours in good, old-fashioned Bible study? Just you and your Bible. Maybe a concordance, but no commentaries or study notes. Just you and your Bible, wrestling with words and arguments, and you asking God what it is He has to say to you today?