Faith Seeking Understanding

How do you define “theology”? Our first inclination in answering this question is to use the garage toolbox method we all learned in grade school. I don’t dislike the garage toolbox method; as a matter of fact, it’s downright helpful sometimes. Let’s give it a go with the word “theology”:

  1. Get your saw out and cut the word “theology” precisely in half.
  2. You now have two Greek word roots (theo and logy), one in each hand. Translate them into English.
  3. Use a drill to stick ’em back together.

If you follow the instructions to this proverbial game of Operation correctly, you’ll get a definition that goes something like this – “Theology is the study of God.” Done, right? Not so much.

This definition doesn’t seem to float the boats of theologians. Not because it’s wrong or because they don’t like the garage toolbox method. They do. But mere word root translations are only bare-bones introductions to whatever topic they propose to encompass, and as such they are usually insufficient for definitional purposes. I was told in grade school that the phrase “solar system” meant “sun system” because sol means sun. None of that is incorrect, and I have no complaint with it. However, there is much more about the solar system that could be included in a more proper definition, yes? Using word roots to understand our solar system as the “sun system” is a great way for a tiny person to start, but it is just that – a place to start. As we mature, a richer understanding is necessary. So let’s use our understanding of theology as “the study of God” in a similar way. It is not defined incorrectly as such, but rather incompletely. It is a great place to start, but a terrible place to finish. If we aim to describe the very loftiest pursuit which avails itself to mankind, simply translating word roots and sewing them back together will not do. Theology is queen of the sciences. What description shall fit?

Read what Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) offered on the subject and be blessed.

“I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to know your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”

Quite beautiful, yes? Here’s is Anselm’s derived definition of theology (shorter, even, than the one provided by the garage toolbox method, but decidedly more attractive). Anselm says that theology is faith seeking understanding. That’s it. Theology is faith seeking understanding. In studying the depths of the Lord, we trust everything that he has revealed up to the present moment, and find ourselves very nearly begging for what he may reveal next. This is why the Bible is inextricably tied to theology and the reason it is so inexhaustibly interesting to us…it’s God’s revelation of himself. And best of all, he has promised to reward those who diligently seek him (Prov 8:17, Heb 11:6). Doing theology is earnestly trusting what God has already shown you and asking him to show you more – which he has guaranteed to do.

Now, some people don’t like this definition. “It excludes non-Christians,” I’m told. “It’s really short,” I’m told (which happens rarely in theology). “It’s really old,” I’m told (which happens quite often in theology). Concerning the first of these objections, many people prefer to define theology more broadly, claiming that all people are theologians because all people without exception contemplate life’s questions of ultimacy (which must at some point include considering at least the possibility of God). I can’t say that I’m inclined to agree. Considering the possibility that God exists doesn’t make someone a theologian any more than considering the possibility that sick people exist makes someone a doctor. No, I think that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe he exists” (Heb 11:6). Don’t be bothered, however. To say that one must be a Christian in order to properly do Christian theology is not an exclusive statement – not when the invitation to become a Christian is inclusive of all.

Theology is faith seeking understanding. Ponder this as I pray Paul’s prayer over you.

I bow my knees before the Father, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that you may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,  that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)

FTH.


Losing Leverage

Anyone who has lived with their eyes open long enough to see clearly has lived long enough to witness one human being (or group) taking advantage of another. It is an undeniable symptom of a sinful nature that we will use as leverage whatever we can to gain advantage over another. “The rat race,” “keeping up with the Jones,” call it what you will – apart from the sanctifying work of Christ, life is an endless jockeying for position against your opponents fellow person. And the teaching of Jesus is diametrically opposed to this system. Jesus did the opposite, although if anyone ever had the right to use their station to their advantage, it was he. But instead of considering his station something to be LEVERAGED, he made himself nothing (Phil 2:6-7). It is impossible to understand this apart from the Spirit’s enablement. That’s why “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him” (1 Cor 2 :14).

And while people have used anything they can get their hands on as leverage against others, I can’t think of anything that has been used more than race, economic station, and gender. In every injustice, far more often than not, the criteria that garnered undeserved discrimination has been the color of someone’s skin, their economic freedom (whether monetary status or freedom itself), or their gender. In America alone, we’ve seen all three of these in the last 150 years. We’ve seen people oppressed because they are not white. We’ve seen people oppressed because they are not free. We’ve seen people oppressed because they are not men. If you find this history (and, in some parts of the world, present reality) to be repulsive, the word of God in Galatians 3:28 will be particularly delicious to you.

Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” You can strive all day long until your days run out to gain leverage over others, but nothing you get can gain you a single thing in your standing before God. All that ultimately matters is your standing in Christ, in whom there are no racial distinctions, economic distinctions, or gender distinctions (as it pertains to justification; concerning practical daily living, many of these distinctions are imperatively kept, as evidenced by Paul’s addressing each group one at a time in Scripture). Salvation comes by faith (Eph 2:8), not by leverage or coercion.

The Jewish man once proudly prayed a prayer each morning thanking God that he was not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. He literally thanked God for his worldly leverage over other people groups. To this, the gospel of our Lord says, “No more.” In Christ, there is no such thing as racism, no such thing as slavery, and no such thing as sexism. Rather, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11).

Christians hear all the time that the Bible inflames hate toward certain segments of the population. Groundless charge, I’m afraid, since the Author of the Bible created and loves every segment of the population. His acceptance is free, and his salvation is no respecter of persons.

Life is not a rat race. It is the race (2 Tim 4:7), won by Christ’s effort, not ours.

FTH.


When Strivings Cease

Legalism is oft-used word and an oft-followed philosophy (although many do not realize they are trapped in its snare). So what is legalism, anyway?

In its more explicit application, legalism refers to the Law of Moses in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and the belief that by following the Law one can be justified before God (by justified, think “made right” or “saved”). This kind of explicit legalism isn’t the legalism that typically entangles us most of the time, because it’s so easy to spot (and because it is so clearly obliterated by Scripture – see entire book of Galatians). I don’t find many people who are trusting in the Law of Moses for their justification/salvation.

But the principle behind this “Old Testament” legalism still plagues us. What, exactly, accomplishes justification according to legalism? Following the Law. And what is following the Law? An action which I do by my own effort. The legalism of our day has the same ultimate driving force behind it as explicit legalism – the belief that my merit before God comes from me. I trust in myself. I justify myself. We say in our minds, Not me. But our practice of running from God after spiritual failures and yet sprinting toward him proudly after spiritual successes says, Yes, you. Legalism at its core is justification by self-effort. In common usage today, Christians give the word “religion” the same definition.

Jesus gave a truly profound warning against this idea that comes so naturally to us all (John 5:45). Addressing a group of Jews (explicit legalists), he said, “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope.” Do you have ears to hear what he is saying? There is no need to accuse or condemn those who trust in the Law, because the Law will do that for itself. The very standard in which the Jews were trusting for deliverance would become the standard that would sentence them. What does that mean for you today? That if you set your hope on your own behavioral merits before God, your own behavioral shortcomings will stand to condemn you before God. Belief in self-propelled reward leads to the reality of self-wrought destruction. Trust in your own good, and your own bad will sentence you. Your penultimate success will not prevent your ultimate failure. Your good will not outweigh your bad – not when the standard is perfection. Do you have ears to hear these things?

What is the solution, then? The estate of humanity looks pretty bleak at this point. Are we helplessly and hopelessly condemned forever? By no means!

By trusting in a substitute, we can be made right with God. The light of Jesus Christ breaks into our darkness, and by faith in him we apprehend a right relationship with God. He prevents our failure. His good outweighs our bad. His merits overcome our shortcomings. His reward becomes ours. The question is not whether we deserve reward from God; that question has been already answered with a resounding no. What we deserve is punishment, because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But forgiveness and life are offered to us anyway, with the affection of God the Father as the motivator. It’s grace, when you least expect to find it. It’s freedom, when you thought you already had it. Read John 3:16 with new eyes. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

But, sadly, we don’t naturally like grace, do we? When we’re rewarded, we want the credit. We don’t want to depend on anyone or anything else for our lot in life, this one or the next. The legalist from within emerges, threatening to stomp out the hope of the gospel of grace. So the question you must ask yourself becomes, Can I bear to live in the light of a love I did not earn? 

If you can, you will live a very long time, indeed. Forever. And this will be your song:

In Christ alone my hope is found

He is my light, my strength, my song 

This Cornerstone, this solid ground 

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm

What heights of love, what depths of peace!

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My Comforter, my all in all,

Here in the love of Christ I stand!

FTH.


2013’s Utmost

my-utmost1A 100 year-old compilation of the sermons and writings of Oswald Chambers has been assembled under the title “My Utmost for His Highest” (you may have heard of it). It takes the form of a daily devotional, with one little gold mine of a page to be read per day. And Chambers doesn’t exactly waste any time getting to the convicting stuff. Here’s January 1 from one of the most famous devotionals of all time. Let it pierce you.

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“My eager desire and hope being that I may never feel ashamed, but that now as ever I may do honour to Christ in my own person by fearless courage” (Phil 1:20, Moffat). We shall all feel very much ashamed if we do not yield to Jesus on the point He has asked us to yield to Him. Paul says – “My determination is to be my utmost for His Highest.” To get there is a question of will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender on that point. An over-weaning consideration for ourselves is the thing that keeps us from that decision, though we put it that we are considering others. When we consider what it will cost others if we obey the call of Jesus, we tell God He does not know what our obedience will mean. Keep to the point; He does know. Shut out every other consideration and keep yourself before God for this one thing only – My Utmost for His Highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone. “Whether that means life or death, no matter!” (Phil 1:21). Paul is determined that nothing shall deter him from doing exactly what God wants. God’s order has to work up to a crisis in our lives because we will not heed the gentler way. He brings us to the place where He asks us to be our utmost for Him, and we begin to debate; then He produces a providential crisis where we have to decide – for or against, and from that point the “Great Divide” begins. If the crisis has come to you on any line, surrender your will to Him absolutely and irrevocably. 

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I keep hearing this little voice…Your kingdom come, Your will be done.

Lord, in 2013, not as I will, but as you will.

FTH.


Children and Diamonds

I always chuckle at the cleverness of those posters that says, “Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten.” Under this headline will be several painfully obvious ideas that most adults are painfully bad at applying – things like “I shouldn’t take things that aren’t mine” and “I should treat other people how I want to be treated.” Simple, beautiful (and unmistakably biblical) truths to live by.

And as much as I enjoy seminary and “deep study,” sometimes I think that “everything I need to know about God, I learned in kindergarten.” Don’t mistake my meaning; I know not everyone was in Sunday School as a five year old learning basic things about God. I also don’t mean that we shouldn’t progressively grow in our understanding of God and develop knowledge as time goes on. By no means are we to remain children when it comes to the knowledge of God, as Paul prayed for us in Scripture, “that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9). So what I mean, precisely, is this: “The most important things that any human being needs to know about God, a small child is capable of understanding.” Even better, they’re both in a single verse.

Psalm 62:11 says, “Once God has spoken, twice I have heard this: That power belongs to God, and that to you, O God, belongs steadfast love.” God has power, and God has love. God is infinitely strong and infinitely loving. He is omnipotent and omnibenevolent. You learned this as a child, but you prayed it like this: “God is great, God is good.” Is this not the gospel? The gospel is unavoidably about a God who is not only inconceivably strong, but a God who is for people. He has the power to do whatever he likes, and what he likes is what is good for people – namely, to save our souls from the destruction we’ve earned for ourselves and bring us back into relationship with himself. God is great and God is good.

God is. And God is for you. And if you leave these things behind for “deeper study,” you will impoverish yourself.

Don’t get me wrong – the beauty of God is the deepest reality that anyone can experience. Delight yourself in knowing him, and lose yourself in finding him. Lose sleep in searching for him. It will take effort to do deep study, and the Bible does not yield its fruit to the lazy. Besides, the payoff of doing deep study is obviously much greater than giving a mere surface-level scratch. Raking is easy, but you only get leaves. Digging is hard, but you may get diamonds. Don’t waste the Bible.

But no matter how deep you go or how many diamonds you’re given, don’t forget that the most valuable diamonds of all are easily found, even for a kindergartner – that God is great. And God is good.

FTH.


Guilt Says ‘Do,’ Jesus Says ‘Done’

This article by JD Greear was shared with me by a coworker. Amazing presentation of what the gospel is (and what it is not).

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I ran across a New York Times article this week by David Brooks entitled “How People Change.” This is a fascinating little op-ed piece that reflects what gospel-centered people already know—you cannot change a person by telling them to ‘be better.’

Brooks talks about a now infamous email that British father Nick Crews sent to his adult children, berating them for their poor life choices. The email, which was recently released to the public by one of Crews’ daughters, has been colloquially termed the “Crews Missile.” The term fits, as the tone of the email is downright scathing. “If it wasn’t for [my grandchildren],” Crews writes, “I would not be too concerned as each of you consciously, and with eyes wide open, crashed from one cock-up to the next. . . . I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed.”

As Brooks comments, the email has been received by many with delight. “Many parents are apparently delighted that someone finally had the gumption to give at least one set of overprivileged slackers a well-deserved kick in the pants.” The problem, though, is that people don’t change by being told that they don’t measure up. Tirades like this might be emotionally satisfying, but they aren’t effective.

As Brooks writes, “People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.” Or to use theological language, we don’t keep on sinning because we don’t know what’s right. We keep on sinning because we love sin.

Not surprisingly, Brooks doesn’t end his article with a gospel proclamation. At least not completely. But he does close by reminding his readers that the most effective way to engender change is not by “bludgeoning bad behavior” but by “changing the underlying context.” In many ways, this is what the gospel does. The gospel is not a message to “go and do,” but a message that salvation has already been done. The underlying context has been changed. We are changed not by being told what we need to do for God, but by hearing the news about what He has done for us.

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FTH.


God Is Not The Only Planner

“Satan is the father of lies,” says Jesus. He invented the practice. He employed it to perfection on our first parents, Adam and Eve. He tempted them through lies. He trapped them by presenting believable falsehoods. How could a falsehood ever be made believable? Turn to Genesis 3 and observe the Master Deceiver.

Before being tempted, Eve accurately recited to Satan the warning of God: “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, or you will die'” (Genesis 3:3). Obviously, God was correct – to eat the forbidden fruit would be a sin, and sin always…alwaysalways…leads to death (Romans 6, James 1). But the Liar, Satan, flat out contradicts this in the very next sentence, saying five words that don’t have a speck of truth in them: “You will not surely die.” LIAR. 

Now pause right here. I am certain that if this had been the end of the conversation between Satan and Eve, there would have been no Fall. There would have been no deception. Sin would not have entered the world. Satan’s lie would have been spotted for what it really was. It would have been painfully easy to know that Satan was blatantly lying at this point. Their conversation so far is basically Eve saying, “God said I’ll die if I do that,” and Satan saying, “No you won’t.” I doubt this simple contradiction would have been enough to trick Eve into eating the fruit. It took no genius whatsoever on Satan’s part to simply contradict God. But it took incredible, terrible genius to say what he said next.

His complete thought:  “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Is this second sentence a lie? NoYou see, part of being innocent is being unaware. Adam and Eve were blessed to be beautifully unaware of evil in the Garden before they sinned; they knew only good. They had no knowledge of evil, which is exactly what Satan promised them – that their eyes would be opened, and they would know good and evil and thus be like God (who is aware of all things). And guess what? Satan did not lie when he said that. That is exactly what happened. Adam and Eve ate the fruit, learned of the existence of evil, and became like God. God himself says so later: “The man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22).  Satan lied when he promised Eve she wouldn’t die. But he didn’t lie when he promised her that her eyes would be opened. Her eyes were opened, indeed – in a more terrible, shameful way than any of us can imagine. That’s the part Satan conveniently left out. He told a lie followed by a half-truth. He made his falsehood believable.

If you want to be a good liar, this is a great pattern to learn. Don’t just lie head-on or you’ll get laughed at. But dress your lie up in some great-looking half-truths and you’re in business. Plant some doubt and then go for the kill. It worked like a charm on Eve, and it still works on us today. Satan has yet to update his methods. He still plants lies painted with truth. For instance, how about this faulty logic:  “God created sex for people to enjoy” (TRUTH). “That means I’m free enjoy it whenever and however I want.” (LIE).  Just because God created a gift does not mean they’re aren’t guidelines for enjoying it. How about this one? “My decisions don’t define me; I am more than just my decisions” (TRUTH). “Therefore my decisions don’t matter” (LIE). Your decisions are not isolated events that are made in unrelated vacuums. They are steps that are going to lead you somewhere and they matter. A lot.

Here’s the punch line. The Deception will not come to you uncamouflaged. Temptations do not announce themselves. Effective lies are not apparent. They are cleverly clothed in half-truths and on the surface they seem hopelessly attractive. This has been Satan’s procedure from the beginning – he won’t try to take you all at once; it’s a slow fade. It is time to understand that Satan has a plan for your life, too. A specific one. And he’s trillions of times smarter and stronger than you. But thankfully, because of Jesus, “in all these things we are more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37). And since “we lack wisdom, we should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).

Pray for wisdom. Expose the lie. “And then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).

FTH.