It’s said that those who stand for nothing fall for everything. Is Paul preaching moral ambiguity here? Or is he saying, “because I’m not under the law, I can do whatever I want and I’m saved anyway?” Should we follow his example, and just “do whatever”?
Yes and no. Yes, we would do well to follow Paul’s example; no, we should not just “do whatever”. This isn’t what Paul is advocating. While Christians fiercely debate what it means to be “not under the law, but Grace” (see Ephesians 2:8-9), I submit that we get a glimpse in 2 Corinthians:
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:6
This passage is saying that we have been freed from the letter of the law so that we are free to abide by the spirit of the law. Practical example?
I have daughters who are not yet of an age where we need to discuss curfews. When we get there, however, my wife and I are going to have two choices: enforce the letter of the law (“you are to be home by 9:00 PM, no exceptions”) or, communicate the spirit of the law (“be home at a reasonable hour so your mother and I don’t worry”). An obedient daughter would use this freedom to do the right thing. She would often be home well before 9:00 most nights, and would ensure that she phones in if circumstances put her home later than usual. Why? Because the spirit of the law (the “why”, if you will) is so your mother and I don’t worry. As a loving and obedient daughter, she loves us and doesn’t want us to worry, so she makes sure we don’t have to.
The narrative of the Bible, taken as a whole, paints a picture in which the letter of the law (enforced by legal compulsion in Israel) fails to produce this kind of loving obedience. It achieves, in fact, quite the opposite.
Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.
The remedy? God voluntarily offers up His Son’s life to pay the price of our sins and remove the compulsion of the law, so that we may voluntarily submit to His rule in love and obedience.
Now, while there are still things that God clearly does not like and should be avoided, period, we would do well in this context to avoid viewing “right and wrong” as binary concepts. Scripture is filled with what outsiders believe to be “contradictory” teachings, not because they actually contradict, but because the right thing to do is often situational. What do I mean by this?
Think of doing the right thing in the context of playing a piano (full disclosure: I didn’t invent this concept, CS Lewis did). Is playing the key of E right or wrong? Stupid question, right? It depends on the song and the specific chord progression.
Is it wrong to lie? Most of the time, yes, but what if you were living in Nazi Germany and hiding Jews in your home; if the Gestapo came by and asked if you were harbouring Jews, would it be wrong to lie then?
There are those who would say “absolutely, a lie is a lie is a lie” and accuse me of being morally ambiguous because I suggested otherwise. But I would submit that the person who insists on such a binary approach is the morally ambiguous one. Why? Because they believe that in this situation, you’re in the wrong no matter what you do. It would be wrong to turn Jews over to the Gestapo so they can be shipped off to a death camp, but it would also be wrong to lie. In this instance, Grace may be a “get out of jail free card”, but it’s hardly liberating, is it?
However, if we take the piano approach, you always have the opportunity to do the right thing. Think about that. You can always decide to obey the Spirit of the law, the purpose of the law, the heart of the law, which is to love God with your whole heart and your neighbour as yourself. In this context, Grace does more than get you out of hell, it liberates you so you can do the right thing.
Naturally, that doesn’t mean you always will do what’s right (you’re still wrestling with the flesh, after all), but it does mean that you’re free to pursue the work of the Gospel with vigour, free from having to wrestle with ethically uncertain situations (must I decline an invitation to dinner with receptive unbelievers because they have a buddha statue in their home?) because the letter of the law is no longer a constraint.
Should we translate this into “I’m free to attend this drunken orgy because I might have an opportunity to share the Gospel”? Don’t be stupid, of course not. Why? Because:
Heavenly Father, your ways amaze us. You used your Son’s sacrifice on the cross to create a new Kingdom, one in which every single citizen is there, and obedient, not by compulsion but by choice. Who else has done such a thing? Make us fitting citizens of your Kingdom so we may continually offer you ever more fitting praise and honour. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Colin McComb is a sincere and committed Christian living in Edson, Alberta.
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
- 1 Corinthians 10:31
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
- Matthew 7:1-2
“How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
- CS Lewis
No two Christian lifestyles need to look the same.
While there are obviously non-negotiable doctrines and ethics with which we all must align (there are matters on which the bible is abundantly clear; we ignore them to our detriment), two Christians of equal faith and devotion may express those qualities in entirely unique ways. One Christian may be a (responsible) consumer of alcoholic beverages, another may not. One may be rich, another poor. One may worship in a large and impressive building, another on a street corner. One prefers to worship God in a contemporary setting, another prefers hymns. One Christian loves eggnog, another prefers not to allow the joy of Christmas into his heart. (You know who you are...)
While there are dangers and benefits to any lifestyle or form of worship, scripture prescribes that a healthy church will be Spirit-driven and multifaceted, with worshipers who are united in love and purpose but “gloriously different” in the expressions of their faith.
Look at Jesus’ point in the bible passage from Matthew, above. Do Jesus and John the Baptist lead remotely similar lifestyles? Nope. Is Jesus’ lifestyle somehow “right” while John’s is wrong? Nope. But I don’t understand, which is it, are we supposed to eat food, drink wine and hang out with sinners, or ought we to be hanging out in the desert eating locusts and wild honey?
Answer: wisdom is proved right by her deeds; the wind blows wherever it pleases; whether you eat or drink, do it all for the glory of God.
As Christians, we are not to apply external templates of religiosity onto our lives and try to conform to them (or worse, conform other Christians to them); this will get us nowhere. Rather, we’re to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives and obey the instructions God puts on our hearts.
How do we know which instructions come from God? We read our bibles to make certain that what we’re hearing lines up with scripture; and we work on our relationship with the Holy Spirit, training ourselves to become better acquainted with His voice. Once I’ve received my marching orders, I should now obey them. What I ought to be careful not to do is then declare that everyone around me needs to do the same.
My wife and I were recently called to overseas missions; currently we’re in the process of being vetted and selecting a specific location. Missions are important, but are we to infer that everyone around us ought to be doing the same? Of course not. Alternatively, is it fair for those who feel they haven’t been called overseas to tell us that we’re off our rockers, or find subtle ways to find fault with our admittedly faulty plans? Naturally, no.
We all need to be obedient to the call of Christ in our lives, and supportive of those who have been called to other works, lifestyles or expressions of faith.
This is not religious pluralism, it’s just what the bible teaches.
Now, there are essential matters of doctrine and ethics that are true for all Christians, all of the time, full stop. If I encounter a Christian who is living or openly advocating a doctrine or lifestyle that is clearly incorrect, and if it is my place to speak correction on that matter (be careful, check Matthew 7:1-5), I should do so from a place of humility, respect and grace.
What I ought not to do is scream such truth on Twitter or Facebook (or in person), inform someone in the least courteous of terms that they’re just plain wrong on this subject, and justify my rather unchristian conduct because I fancy myself to be some sort of modern-day old testament prophet.
In short, even if I’m right, it doesn’t mean I’m right:
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
- 1 Corinthians 13:2
The weaponization of poorly-conceived, bombastic opinions in order to shame and deride others is practically a religion these days; but it's not our religion, and we do well to steer clear of it.
I wonder if I really understand that the goodness of God not only exists within me, but defines me; He is the core of who I am. He is at the center.
I know this, on some theological level, but is this central to my understanding of myself in relation to God and to the world around me? If I’m to be completely honest, I likely spend a lot more time approaching God from the standpoint of an malevolent sinner in need of penance rather than a redeemed child in need of forgiveness and a helping hand.
Of course, repentance and confession are and must be central to Christian living. A Christian must have a confessional attitude (1 John 1:9-10), but does that necessarily translate to an attitude of scorn and derision as it concerns me? More disconcerting still, do I subconsciously project this expectation onto other Christians and expect that they ought to do the same? Again, if I’m to be honest, I probably do.
What struck me this morning as I read David’s psalm is his acknowledgement of God’s work in himself as wonderful - a praise where praise is due sort of statement - which he manages without the slightest trace of conceit. If God has truly made me wonderfully, is it really virtuous of me to heap scorn on myself? On my sin, yes, but on myself? I wonder.
This morning, God’s word has compelled me to hit the pause button and reflect on an unspoken assumption that I’ve carried around with me for a long time. While I certainly don’t want to join in on the narcissistic “celebration of self” that seems to have become the world's favourite pastime, perhaps I need to be more careful not to go running off another cliff entirely. We’ve all done that now, haven’t we?
It’s nearly impossible to overstate how badly we've been corrupted and misled by our collectively individualistic worldview. It affects everything. It damages our moral compasses, negatively impacts our personal relationships, perverts our connection with the church body and drastically affects our reading of scripture.
Take the above verse from first Corinthians. Read it carefully. Many North Americans will take away from this that each of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit; each of us has a “little piece of God” that we’re carrying around with us day-to-day. Now while that might be true to a certain extent, this isn’t Paul’s point.
His point can be found by understanding that the word ‘you’ in this case is plural (hard to avoid, there is no plural form for ‘you’ in the English language) and the word ‘temple’ is singular. Paul is saying that the collective ‘you’ forms the temple of God. Together, God inhabits us. The NLT lays it out nicely:
Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?
1 Corinthians 2:16-17 (NLT)
Modern Christians are fond of saying “we are the church”. That is to say, the building is not the church, we are. This is true, and I hope we don’t stop saying this. The problem comes, however, from the fact that we often implicitly believe this to mean “each of us” is the church, and “each of us” carries church with us wherever we go.
This individualistic assumption not only runs counter to the biblical narrative, it tends to have the exact opposite impact that Paul intends, in that we often use this “we are the church” rationale to justify not engaging other Christians. “If I’m the church,” one might say, “then I don’t need that uncomfortable building, those boring people or that moralizing pastor. I can go ahead and ‘be’ church in my own time, and in my own way.”
But saints, there is no such thing as individualistic Christianity. Yes, faith should be deeply personal and incredibly intimate, but this is not the same thing as being individualistic. Many pastors unconsciously respond to the unspoken egoism in our congregations by urging “each of us” to carry out our evangelistic activities (e.g. sharing Jesus with our coworkers) on our own time, in our own little worlds.
Yes, we should share Jesus with our coworkers, absolutely. But are we engaging is such activities with other Christians? If we aren’t working with other Christians, praying with other Christians, eating with other Christians, mourning with other Christians, rejoicing with other Christians, then we’re not behaving like Christians.
I could go on a tangent here and cite verse after verse that emphasizes the corporate nature of faith in Christ. But instead I’ll encourage all of us to think about the assumptions we bring to our reading of the bible. Our western individualistic mindsets skew everything, the way we interpret every detail, every word, every parable and every prayer. To what extent have we read into scripture the militantly individualistic mindset that has become the bedrock of western culture?
Suffice it to say, if we are to remain in Christ, as He commanded (John 15:4), going it alone is not an option.
Go to church.
“Then, after doing all those things, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on servants—men and women alike.
If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Like many, I was turned off for years by Christians who seemed to be perpetually preoccupied with the gifts of the Spirit. Rather than focusing outwardly on Christ and His teachings, some of them seemed to me to be obsessed with performing magic tricks for the purposes of self-edification.
Make no mistake, there are Christians out there who match this description. And naturally they would gravitate to Spirit-filled churches in the same way a legalist might find his way to a Baptist church, or a cheap grace advocate to a charismatic church. There are abusers everywhere; there are also highly-flawed believers who, like you and like me, need repeated correction from our Father in Heaven before they start getting anywhere near the biblical mark.
Nonetheless, we should not let such things distract us from the Bible’s teachings. Just because there are “Christians” who deny the physical resurrection of Christ and happen to be preoccupied with social justice, does not mean I ought to steer clear of Christ’s clear teachings on feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. Because there is a such thing as legalism is no argument against practicing obedience.
Loved ones: just because there are people out there who abuse or mishandle the practice of spiritual gifts does not mean that we ought to back-burner a relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Read the book of Acts and the letters that come afterwards. The gifts of the Spirit are not an aside that we can take or leave anymore than we can take or leave Christ’s teachings. If we neglect the Spirit, we are doomed to remain in spiritual infancy:
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly.
Do you want to move mountains? Cultivate a relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
No pretense or wearing masks. No cliques. No hidden agendas, backroom deals, betrayals, secret ambitions, plots, or schemes.
We are going to judge angels. Which angels? Doesn’t say: the fallen ones, I’m guessing. It’s only fitting, given that they’ve been our unrelenting tormenters since the beginning. If our Heavenly Father is going to share this important work with anyone, why not us?
More pertinent than the sense of status this imparts on us, at least for the sake of this argument, is the following detail that we might be tempted to miss: in Heaven, we’ll have work to do.
We oftentimes imagine that Heaven will be boring. If there’s no pain, no grief, no sadness, no fear, then there will also be, it stands to reason, no adventure. In the movie Star Trek Generations, Captain Picard tracks down Captain Kirk in something called the nexus: a nebula of sorts where people get all they ever wanted – a science-fiction heaven. Picard needs to persuade Kirk to leave the nexus with him to go fight bad guys. He finally succeeds when Kirk, being pursued by Picard on horseback, makes a particularly dangerous jump and notices a fearlessness that had never accompanied that same manoeuvre in real life. If there’s no fear, Kirk remarks, then this must not be real. If it’s not real, it’s meaningless.
Kirk here is expressing a truth that most of us have pondered once or twice at least: if Heaven truly is a paradise that offers each of us everything we ever wanted without the nuisance of work, the inconvenience of conflict, or the fear of evil, we will quickly become disenchanted with the whole thing. For Kirk, leaving this nexus thing to go fight bad guys is the perfectly rational choice.
This idea of Heaven, however, doesn’t come from the bible. It’s cheap and malnourished, missing the point and offering the absurd notion that evil is the real source of our happiness (the possibility of falling off a horse and breaking one’s neck produces fear, fear produces excitement, excitement produces happiness). But as much as the occasional adrenaline rush might indeed produce a limited boost in pleasure, it will not produce lasting contentment.
So what does? I agree with the Westminster catechism that the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”, yet those who study their bibles carefully will note that human beings were created with a very specific purpose in mind:
“there was no man to work the ground…the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it”.
Being created in the image of our Creator, we are to work; we are to create.
Theodor Roosevelt once said that “the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”, and he was exactly right. Each of us has the innate urge to work, to create, which is precisely why work can be so painful.
We were cursed when we disobeyed; and thorns grew up to choke out the real produce. Our sin has jinxed the very activity with which we are supposed to find our meaning. Whether it’s in building, farming, parenting, advising, whatever, we were put on this earth to make it better. Not only are our efforts hindered in this endeavour, oftentimes, the opposite is achieved; we make it worse. Everything we do is an uphill battle. While not always destined for failure, our projects always miss the mark to some extent.
I’ve worked in Human Resources for over twelve years now, and the formula for making happy employees is so simple and obvious that it’s almost embarrassing given the number of research dollars that have been sunk into the subject. Happy employees believe that they are able to make valuable, positive and lasting impacts on the organizations or communities they serve. Unhappy employees believe that their companies couldn’t care less about them, and that their contributions are ultimately worthless.
Now, imagine the best job you’ll ever have. Your boss not only values your contributions, He revels in them. Your contributions are not only valued, they’re celebrated. Your impact is not only lasting, it’s eternal. If you build a deck for a house, it will never rot. If you’re a chef, the food you work with will never spoil. Money won’t be your reward because you won’t need money. The work itself will be your reward.
Whatever your Heavenly calling is going to be, you’re going to love every single minute of it. As I write this, my wife is outside putting mulch down around her carefully tended perennials to help keep out the weeds. Will there be mulch in Heaven? Maybe, but it won’t be necessary. (FYI, if your business on earth is pesticides, you’ll need a new profession in Heaven, sorry).
They say these days that you should make a career out of whatever it is you love doing. And while that’s certainly good advice for those able to take it, even such vocational work can’t escape creation’s curse. Show me a successful entrepreneur and I’ll show you someone who has had to scratch, claw and fight every step of the way. Some of what we do on earth, I think, is blessed, and some eternal remnant of it will be retained and carried over to the new earth, providing it is work done unto the Lord. But imagine work on the other side; imagine work without the curse.
If you have Jesus, one day you'll be able to do more than imagine.
"But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body… So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
The word spiritual here is an adjective describing body, not negating its meaning. A spiritual body is first and foremost a real body or it would not qualify to be called a body. Paul could have simply said, “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spirit,” if that were the case.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Let’s just wrap our heads around this one piece of information for today. It’s a lot to take in. What an acorn is to an oak tree, your current body is to your future body. No, you are not going to be a semi-transparent spirit floating upwards through the clouds playing a harp into infinity. If you have truly and sincerely given your life to Christ, you are in for a physical upgrade beyond your imagining. CS Lewis puts it like this:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare."
Jesus says that we’ll be like “Angels in Heaven” (Mark 12:25). This is hardly impressive if you take your idea of angels from popular culture; but have you read the Old Testament? Angels are terrifying creatures; Daniel turned white as a sheet when encountering one (Daniel 10:8), paralyzed with fear; and he’s not the only one.
By far the greatest thing about Heaven will be that Jesus is there. The King returns, justice is restored, and the curse that now lies on creation is lifted... but you have to admit, this thing with our bodies is pretty cool.
Remember, Jesus was raised in the flesh. His disciples could touch Him, He could eat and drink, He even had scars to mark His time on the cross. He didn’t do this so that we could one day turn into forest nymphs with no corporeal substance; He did this so that we, too, can be resurrected in the flesh – each one of us a seed that finally turns into a tree.
It’s no wonder so many Christians struggle with guilt over their failure to look forward to such an eventuality as Heaven. Popular culture paints a dreary and uninspiring picture of eternal boredom; and a great many of us have bought into that picture, part and parcel. What the Bible has to say, however, is all-too intriguing, and not in the least bit boring.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.