Iron sharpens iron
Many people acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, but are mistaken about achieving salvation. Some look at forgiveness, righteousness, and salvation as within their own power to grasp. On the contrary, Paul tells us,
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3.4-7)
He explains this further in the first several chapters of Romans, making it clear that we are unable to attain righteousness through our own will and actions. It’s not that we have no choice in the matter, but rather that we all have already forfeited any claim on the right to eternal life, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23). Just like Adam and Eve, we had our chance, and we blew it. Mercifully, while we can’t possibly achieve a standing of righteousness before the Lord, Jesus is able to give it to us, and through the blood of his sacrifice he offers us justification and salvation from certain condemnation.
On the other hand, some focus so much on what Jesus does, that they neglect their own role in becoming justified before God. The mistake on this side is to say that, because salvation is not something we can earn ourselves, our actions and decisions have no bearing on our eternal life or death. That’s an attractive idea to someone struggling against sin and falling under its power, but it’s just not what God said! First of all, the once-saved-always-saved assumption is utterly false, as demonstrated in Galatians 5.4, Hebrews 3.12 & 6.4-8, 2 Peter 2.20-22 & 3.17, 1 John 5.16, 2 John 8, Revelation 2 & 3, and many others. On top of that minor problem, God’s word makes it very clear that our manner of life must change—that we must imitate and embody the righteousness of Christ, not just wear it as a label.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2.8-10)
Paul also asks in Romans 6.2, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” These two, along with many other passages, make it abundantly clear that, although perfect righteousness is an unattainable goal for us in the physical world, it’s still one God expects us to pursue, with his help.
This twin misunderstanding also applies on a larger scale, to the salvation of the whole world. On the one hand, it’s quite plain from things Jesus says, things the Apostles say, and the visions God gave to John, that the world will never become one great, happy church, striving in unison to praise God and live righteously. For example,
If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15.19-20)
all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3.12-13)
And finally, in the latter part of Revelation 19, Christ appears on a white horse, wearing a robe dipped in blood, and striking down the nations, treading “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (v15). Does that sound like the world has voluntarily submitted itself and confessed that Jesus is Lord? So, it’s pretty clear that no matter how hard we try, no matter how skillfully we preach the Gospel, no matter how many sacrifices we make, no matter how many hours we put in, no matter how tirelessly we plead, we will not convert the world to Christ.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Just as pursuing righteousness in our individual lives is not only worthwhile but compulsory, so is the pursuit of teaching the world about Jesus. He told his apostles to
“make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28.19-20)
Why should his followers chase an unattainable goal? Because he wants us to do so. Because it serves his purpose. Because even though we won’t ever get the world to serve Christ, we will convince some. Our job is to plant and water, but God gives the growth (1Co 3.6). “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him,” (He 2.8), but we look forward to the time when God finishes putting all his enemies under Christ’s feet, when we can finally shout with the angels in heaven, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Re 11.15). We aren’t able to bring about that end ourselves, but God can. And God wants your hands to contribute to the work.
When I set out to write an article most weeks, I already have a topic in mind. It’s usually something I’ve chosen long beforehand and penciled into a schedule, whether it’s an idea that’s been on my mind lately, or something I think people need to hear, or the spiritual implications of some current event. Once in a while, it happens that I have no predetermined topic, and on those occasions I often flip through my bible at random on the lookout for something accessible, relatable, and sufficiently brief.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3.16-17)
The principle at work here is that harping on my preferred topics exclusively would cause us to miss out on other important things, and there’s always something in the Bible worth our consideration, whether we know it or not. Whenever I do this, I’m reminded of times I’ve heard someone preach with no notes or preparation, introduced by some version of the following declaration: “I’m just going to let the Holy Spirit guide me, and whatever passage I open to, that’ll be our topic.” There’s a lot wrong with this picture. Why would anyone in the audience take this seriously? Why would any preacher claim to be doing this? Do they even believe it, themselves?
There are probably some grifters out there who are deliberately deceiving others, but for the most part, the people who do these sorts of things really do believe it. The idea of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide your words isn’t made up—Jesus said,
“do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10.19-20)
Paul used the phrase, “led by the Spirit” in Galatians 5.18, and again in Romans 8.14. Earlier in the same chapter he wrote,
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Romans 8.9-10)
That all being the case, it appears all Christians are mere conduits for God’s Spirit to say what he wants.
Yet, that raises the question, why do people who are letting the Holy Spirit speak through them disagree with each other so often? Something’s fishy, isn’t it? Perhaps what we have here is the situation John sought to address, when he wrote,
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4.1)
What a terrifying thought! So there will be some people out there claiming God speaks through them, but in fact it’s “the spirit of the antichrist” (v3)! John gives a litmus test for telling which is which, but it doesn’t seem to take care of our problem today, because many who agree that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (v2), as John stipulates, nevertheless disagree with each other about very important matters!
On top of this, why do the messages tend to align so well with the specific preferences of the people who preach them? Once again, something’s fishy here. As with everything, context is key. When Jesus gave his instruction to let the Spirit speak God’s words, he was talking specifically to his twelve Apostles, about how to handle being hauled into court for preaching the Gospel. There are no Apostles today, and even as persecution began to heat up in the early church, Peter didn’t tell the average Christian to adopt this method of dealing with persecutors—instead he said,
Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3.14-15)
Far from casually expecting the Spirit to speak through us on demand, he tells us to prepare! And why shouldn’t we? Unlike the Apostles at the beginning, we have the New Testament available to us in full, revealed by God’s Spirit. Why wouldn’t we simply trust all that the Spirit has already said?
Then, there’s Paul’s prediction that prophecy, speaking in tongues, and knowledge will pass away and cease (1Co 13.8). He does not say the the Spirit will pass away or cease, but that certain of the supernatural spiritual gifts Christians in the first century experienced, would pass away. Why? Because they would no longer be needed. He continues in verse 10, “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
There’s still the argument over when exactly that passing away was to occur, but when you compare the obvious and undeniable public miracles common in the book of Acts, to the lame and scammy offerings of con artists today, it’s pretty clear that the time of supernatural spiritual gifts—including direct revelation—is over. These frauds and hacks are led by the spirit, alright; but it’s their own spirit, not God’s. It’s the same idolatry that so often seduced the ancient Israelites: self-gratification, dressed up as devotion to a higher power. Don’t be fooled.
Thanksgiving was just over a week ago, and what an amusing sight it was, giving thanks as we wrap up a year that just keeps punching us all in the gut. This year we’ve seen some of the worst political division in decades, a global pandemic that continues to drag on incessantly, vast areas burned by wildfires, others burned by rioters, economic lockdown and recession, high rates of unemployment, huge numbers of small businesses closing up for good, social isolation, scarcity of some basic necessities, looting, immense hypocrisy from our supposed betters in public life, and in many cases even the way we celebrated Thanksgiving this year was completely different from every other year, and not by our own choice. In the middle of all this, it seems a little ridiculous to fold our hands and express our great appreciation for perhaps the roughest year in living memory. It’s a bit like asking for more in the middle of a beating, isn’t it?
Yet, many of us still prayed to God and thanked him for all the many ways he has blessed us over the past year. Some did this out of habit or to fulfill an expectation more than out of any genuine gratitude, but others were sincere and had long lists of blessings in mind as they expressed thanks for all they’ve been given. Well, it is God’s expectation:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3.12-15)
Here, Paul has listed many things God expects of us, and some of them are quite challenging. He even admits we’ll have good reason to complain, in verse 13. We’ll have to sacrifice and give ground for each other’s sake, we’ll be hurt and have to absorb the injury and forgive the one who gave it, and yet still be thankful. How can we genuinely do this?
The words used can give us some hints. In English we usually mean something no deeper than surface-level when we say, “thanks.” But we have other ways of getting the point across, and one is the word “appreciate.” What this word means at its root is that we ascribe a high value to something, someone, or some action. We consider it to be worth a high price, and so if someone just gives it to us, we recognize that we owe some debt of gratitude.
Another hint is found in the word translated, “thankful” in Co 3.15: εὐχάριστος-eucharistos. Embedded within it is the same word that is generally translated “grace,” which itself can also mean “gift” or “gratitude,” among other things. The proper response to a gift fits right there with the appreciation we just discussed, and in both of these we can see the underlying assumption that we have been given what we do not deserve. Paul is making this same point in discussing justification by faith, when he says “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Ro 4.4). We ought to be grateful for his gracious gift, but if we’d earned it, it would no longer be a gift, and we wouldn’t have much reason to be thankful. You might say “thanks!” to your employer for your paycheck out of a sense of etiquette, but if the boss withheld wages you’d rightfully earned, the reality of the situation would quickly sink in for all parties. Perhaps you’re grateful for your job, but once you’ve put in the work, wages are not a gift, but a right.
But if we have “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Co 3.12), then we’ll remember that every good thing comes from God (Ja 1.17), and will happily acknowledge that we don’t deserve such gifts from him. We forfeited any claim on God’s grace by sinning against him, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23). As such, we have no right to expect gifts—on the contrary, “a fearful expectation of judgment” (He 10.27) would be more appropriate. This goes far beyond giving thanks for our daily bread and the clothes on our backs—it’s about the destination of our eternal souls!
As we put all of this together, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and inadequate, and that makes it hard to swallow the exhortation we saw in Colossians 3.15, to “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts.” But that’s the the whole point! If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that not only do we not deserve any good gifts from God in this world, but we don’t deserve anything other than “a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (He 10.28) in the world to come. Embracing this fact and entrusting ourselves to the Savior who promises forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, is the way to find peace, even in such troubled times as we’ve faced this year. It’s the secret to being thankful even while facing need and requesting more. Most importantly, it’s the first step toward finding that peace for all eternity.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4.6-7)
As our culture turns its back on God more and more with each passing year, many religious leaders are grappling with the question: how can we keep our numbers up? Regardless of what new and exciting methods are implemented, the number of congregants steadily declines, while the average age of the remainder steadily rises.
There are many factors that contribute to this problem. To crassly borrow a term from the world of economics and business, we operate in a saturated market—that is, everyone has access to “church,” by the broadest definition, and there are more suppliers than the current level of demand can sustain. This makes it a challenge to reach new people, since pretty much everyone has heard at least the most basic form of the Gospel. Then, churches are in competition with each other for a shrinking number of churchgoers, so there’s always a seemingly greener pasture for anyone who gets annoyed, offended, or just doesn’t feel sufficiently served wherever they attend.
On top of that, there’s some level of burnout among established church members, who grow tired of feeling judged, or feeling like there’s no point, or feeling ignored, or forgotten, or overburdened, or any other of a host of emotions that reflect a deeper issue: “the love of many will grow cold” (Mt 24.12). At the same time some of these are slipping away, it seems the Gospel doesn’t “stick” with the children of even devoted members, so the up-and-coming generation is scarcely found at church. Much of this comes from the broader culture’s ever-increasing efforts to…dysangelize. That horrible term is borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century pompous blowhard intellectual who made the phrase “God is dead” famous. The Gospel, the euangelion, means “good (eu-) news (angelion).” Yet many loud voices find a broad platform in today’s society for preaching very bad (dys-) news. This dysangelion is simply the mistaken notion that the physical is all that exists.
In the face of all this, what is the solution most religious leaders have dreamed up? That is neatly summed up in a recent (11/17/20) headline from The Babylon Bee, a satirical news website: “Youth Group Kids Leaving The Faith At Alarming Rates In Spite Of Unlimited Pizza and Mountain Dew.” The reason it elicits a snicker is the kernel of truth at its core. They’re jumping headlong into the category of “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Php 3.18-19).
It’s not limited to food and drink, unfortunately. Many who claim to follow Christ have turned worship into something between a rock concert and an indeterminate spiritual experience that may or may not have anything at all to do with Jesus. Then the preachers focus on offering motivational platitudes rather that truths that may be difficult to say and hear, the entire group silently agrees to ignore God’s condemnation of whatever sins society happens to be supporting this week, and the only thing that seems to guarantee keeping the organization viable is turning it into a Political Action Committee aimed at building heaven on earth by whatever means are necessary, perhaps missing the sarcasm when Paul asks in Romans 3.8, “why not do evil that good may come?” Has it worked? Clearly not.
This is all about trying to make people feel good. It’s an appeal to the flesh.
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! (Ephesians 4.19-20)
It’s very sad to see Christianity—even warped as the mainstream denominations already were—shrinking and losing both membership and cultural clout. We live in the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world—a title it holds by no slim margin—partly because of vast natural resources and conveniently defensible borders, but also in part because it was founded by people whose main aim in life was to serve God, although they certainly did “stumble in many ways,” as do we all (Ja 3.2). That commitment to loving God and neighbor is what built such a strong nation, by God’s blessing. Over time, this country “grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation,” as Israel did so long ago (De 32.15). The flesh now supersedes the spirit, for many even who profess Christ. What did God tell us about this?
“Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Ga 5.13), we are told. Sounds sacrificial, rather than fun. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v16) comes next. How many respected, avowed Christian leaders have been caught in fornication, drug addiction, financial corruption, or tyrannical leadership? “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v21). On the contrary, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v24), and are thus enabled not only to stay on the member rolls at church, but far more importantly, to actually be Christ’s hands and mouth in serving and teaching this miserable, hurting, and utterly lost world. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (v25).
God sent Philip the Evangelist to encounter an Ethiopian eunuch on the road, and the first thing he saw the Ethiopian doing was reading from Isaiah 53. Philip asked, “do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I, unless someone guides me?” was the eunuch’s response (Ac 8.30-31). Philip joined him in the chariot and taught him the Gospel of Christ, and the story suggests the eunuch carried the message home and so was the first to introduce Christianity to North Africa. That is the most important takeaway—the salvation of many souls—but there are other things we can learn from this interaction. This man was dutifully reading his Bible, yet he didn’t understand, and considered it out of reach. He needed a guide.
Consider that the eunuch begins by asking Philip who exactly is the subject of phrases such as, “like a sheep he was led to the slaughter” (v32). This reflects some effort already expended on his part to interpret the passage, and it’s an important question to ask about anything you read, particularly the words of God’s prophets. The eunuch is clearly trying. But he’s also clearly failing.
We may find ourselves in the same position from time to time. Often it will be when we are attempting to engage with one area or another of God’s word, especially where prophecies are concerned. Take Psalm 67—it’s short and sweet, just 15 lines of typical Hebrew poetry, and just over half of those lines are some variation on the theme, “let the peoples praise you, O God” (e.g. v3). At first glance, we’re inclined to file it under “psalms of praise” along with about 50 others, which means we’re unlikely to come back and consider it in greater detail anytime soon. Let’s look a little more closely. That term, “peoples,” which we glossed over so easily a moment ago, is more specific than we might have thought. It’s not a generic statement that people ought to praise God, but that “the peoples” ought to praise him. It means the same thing as “the nations” in verse 4, or even “all nations” in verse 2. It means the Gentiles.
The Gentiles are mentioned more than 100 times in the psalms, and in the vast majority of these cases they are pictured as enemies to God’s people, wretched sinners, targets of God’s wrath, or some combination of the three. This time, we find a prayer for the nations to “be glad and sing for joy” (Ps 67.4). This isn’t the only time such positive language is used, but it is the exception, not the rule, and in the case of this particular psalm, it’s not just a tangential point, but the core theme! From the perspective of God’s people Israel, this joy among the nations results from seeing how God blesses Israel, not the Gentiles, but that doesn’t detract from the theme. If anything, it intensifies it! God was hinting to his chosen people that not only is he the God of all the earth and not just them, but that something much bigger is on the horizon. It will start with Israel, but like ripples in a pond it will rush ever outward to “shake all nations” (Hg 2.7). This short, simple, run-of-the-mill psalm of praise, so bland and easy to lose among the 149 others surrounding it, is actually a gem, a rare and precious blessing for the entire earth, a prediction of God’s “saving power among all nations” (Ps 67.2). Just like we did at first, most Israelites clearly missed the point—even the early Christians were highly averse to preaching the Gospel to Gentiles.
Alright, what’s the big deal? It’s one chapter out of a thousand, who can blame them for losing it among all the others? Well, let’s take a quick look at the superscript: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.” When you factor in the psalm’s frequent use of the pronoun “us,” it’s clear it was intended to be sung by the congregation in worship. How many Israelites sang these words in the assembly, without really understanding them? How often do we make the same mistake?
It’s important that we pay attention to what we read, and exert the effort necessary to genuinely understand it. It’s also important to do the same when we worship. It’s good to make sure, first of all, that the words we sing are acceptable to God—with notable exceptions, they were written by fallible humans. Poetic license notwithstanding, we are prone to misinterpret and misrepresent God’s word, and he’ll hold us accountable. But further, while we generally think of our songs as merely tools of worship, they go beyond that.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3.16)
Notice that this verse focuses on the word— on teaching and admonishing each other, right alongside thanks to God in our songs. A well-written hymn is an excellent teaching tool, a 3-minute sermon set to music. If you commit it to memory, it’s a great way to “Set your minds on things that are above” (Co 3.2) throughout daily life. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, perhaps we struggle to comprehend the imagery. To wit, an original haiku:
A torrent of words
Flows past swiftly, beyond reach.
Poetry is hard.
Yet, when it involves our worship to God, it’s important! As with the Scriptures themselves, we should invest the effort to understand what we are reading, and singing both to the Lord and to each other. Sometimes, we’ll need someone to guide us. Other times, we’ll just need to contemplate for a while. At all times, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Co 3.16).