During this COVID crisis there’s no shortage of Christians trying to fit the current situation into a narrative that they can come to terms with. Some say this is God’s wrath poured out on the earth, others say it’s the work of Satan, others still remark that it’s some sort of human-engineered conspiracy, maybe a hoax. “They” are trying to influence elections, distract from the recently signed peace accord, shut down churches (whatever). The reality is, however, that the people saying such things don’t actually know such things, neither do I; and that’s okay.
Could this thing be the wrath of God poured out on earth? Maybe. The work of the devil? Perhaps. Biological warfare? Possibly. A complete hoax? Sure, why not? Any of these things could be true. On the other hand, it could be the case that an infected snake in a Wuhan marketplace transmitted the COVID-19 virus to humans, the virus took off, and now a group of imperfect human beings, medical agencies and government authorities are working in earnest to contain it, perhaps too late in the game.
Me? I’m not going to stake out a position. Why. Because it’s not important? No. Rather, because it’s not important that I know. This kind of thing is God’s business, not mine. Mine is to do the work set out for me, set out for all of us in the plain teaching of scripture: worship God, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, share the Gospel, treat others the way I want to be treated... love God with my whole heart and my neighbour as myself. This virus could have been engineered by aliens from another planet working in concert with Freemasons and Scientologists in a plot to destroy Israel, usher in the antichrist and force us all to take vaccines that contain the mark of the beast: it still wouldn’t change how I’m to respond as a disciple of Christ.
I love chapter 9 in John; it’s filled with examples of how Godly wisdom can be present without empirical knowledge. Note the disciples in verse 2 are trying to do the same thing that we are: put a bad thing that’s happened into a rational narrative that they can feel good about. Why? I don’t know, human instinct. I presume some part of them wants to know that they can avoid such a fate if only they check the right boxes. Notice Jesus doesn’t provide them a comprehensive answer that they can write down for future reference. Rather He tells them what they need to know: “this has presented you with an opportunity to bear witness to God’s glory - now seize that opportunity”.
Later in the chapter, the same blind man they were discussing (no longer blind) exhibits the kind of Godly wisdom that Jesus’ own disciples lacked in this instance. He freely admits to not having all the answers; instead he takes what information he has and responds with faith. The Pharisees are asking all the wrong questions as far as he’s concerned: “is He a prophet, a sinner, can He dance on the head of a pin with a thousand angels?” The man responds (v.27): “why do you want to hear (my explanation) again? Do you also want to become His disciples?”
Note the word “also”. This man has made up his mind. He doesn’t have all the facts, and he certainly doesn’t have the full details of the Gospel yet (no one does at this point); but it doesn’t matter. The man who opened up His eyes is righteous, He’s good, He’s brought God’s healing to him; this man will follow Jesus.
We have a choice here. We can try to describe this with theological or political rationalizations that make sense to our fallible human minds; or we can be about God’s business, confident that He has provided everything we need to know in order to do just that. Just be aware that every moment we occupy ourselves with the former is another opportunity lost to do the latter.
What’s it going to be?
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.
Here, John the plain-spoken Baptist devastates his compatriots’ worldview with words that echo in eternity. God can turn rocks into Israelites; national heritage won’t cut it. Each and every tree that doesn’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance will be chopped up for firewood. The seed from which it sprouted will serve as no defense, no protection from God’s judgement.
This is serious, deadly serious, so its imperative that we learn what sort of “fruit” God expects to see. John’s audience certainly wants to know, and they ask him “what on earth should we do then?”. He responds:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
- Luke 3:11-14
On first glance, we may read these instructions and conclude that “fruit” is an outward action that pleases God. After all, most of these commands really don’t seem all that difficult; dropping a little charity into the collection plate and refraining from abusing others ought to do it, no?
First, John’s instructions are that difficult. The first two items on the list command us to give away half our stuff (ouch), and not collecting more taxes than Rome required wasn’t as painless as it sounds. Tax collectors didn’t earn a salary, they made their living by charging extra. John is instructing them to give up their livelihoods. Same deal with the soldiers. These demands don’t merely exhort us to become reasonable and rational people who avoid stepping on other peoples’ toes; something much more challenging is implied.
Fortunately for us, John isn’t giving us an austerity checklist, an itemization of incredibly difficult behaviours that will please God and convince Him to lay His axe elsewhere. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so. Read for yourself what Jesus has to say about fruit:
"And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty."
- Matthew 13:23
Sit on this metaphor for a moment. Let it ruminate. Follow it to its natural conclusion. Does soil decide whether it’s good or bad? Does it will healthy trees into existence? Can a patch of dirt sitting loosely on a sidewalk choose to produce a robust and healthy apple tree? Of course it can’t. Even if it isn’t swept away by the wind or the rain, and even if the seed lands where it’s supposed to, and even if said seed manages to sprout, the roots will have nowhere to go; and the tree will die.
No, the point isn’t for you to put together a checklist of “good fruit” (i.e. “deeds”), start ticking off boxes on that list and keep it handy for the judgement day. Your benevolent and/or religious activities will not save you, because they are not the fruit John is talking about. What is?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
- Galatians 5:22-23
Ah, here we go, now we’re getting to brass tacks. Fruit in keeping with repentance, though it may (and generally ought to) lead to a radical lifestyle change, is a change of heart, a replacement of wickedness with Godly virtue. We must lay hold of the sin that is firmly rooted in our hearts and yank it up, sowing seeds of selflessness and self-control in its place:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
- 2 Peter 1:5-7
Well how on earth are we to do that? Soil can’t change itself, remember?
Why, the Cross of course! Jesus’ loving sacrifice on our behalf frees us from the judgement of sin under which we’ve been living all this time. While we still do sin and still must contend with the flesh, God sees in us only the righteousness of Christ. We are now a fitting abode for His Holy Spirit. He takes up residence in our hearts and begins the critical work of uprooting weeds and planting healthy trees in their place.
No, scratch that…
WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!!! Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that Jesus died for us so He can live in us, personally uproot the nastiness that ails us and turn each one of us into a fountain of everlasting righteousness? How can we even function with this knowledge? How do we ever get off our knees and cease shouting God’s praises so we can eat, drink, or go to work?
Now, some of us come to Jesus with more weeds than others; sanctification is not an easy or instantaneous process. So don’t be disheartened if you’ve sincerely asked Christ into your heart but aren’t living a life that would impress John the Baptist. Beating your breast and condemning yourself will get you nowhere, neither will pulling up your bootstraps and going on a religious self-improvement program. Remember, the work isn’t yours.
Rather, remain firmly rooted in Jesus, for:
“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:4
And do everything within your power to deepen your relationship with the Holy Spirit, who inhabits your heart; for those who walk by the Spirit do not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).
The irony of this moment should not be lost on us, surely. While these holy men conspire to put an innocent man to death, they take care not to become ceremonially unclean and miss out on the religious festivities. They don’t want to get their nice clothes dirty before the big party.
But how many commandments are these paragons of respectability breaking here? Let’s review:
You shall not murder.
- Leviticus 20:13
Check: contrary to what they tell Pilate about not being able to put a man to death (John 18:31), Leviticus 24:16 says otherwise. Now there are many views as to why they say this, and there may be truth to the matter that there were restrictions preventing them from carrying out a sentence – either self-imposed or enforced by the Romans (see Matthew Poole’s commentary); nonetheless, there is only one correct way to put a man to death, and that’s in accordance with the law that commands it. Everything else is called murder.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- Leviticus 20:16
Check: when Pilate asks them what Jesus has done to deserve death, what’s their reply?
“This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.”
- Luke 23:2
Say what? No, Jesus was asked the tax question, and He replied clearly that people ought to render Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17). And the messiah thing? Well there’s some spin there, isn’t there? Pilate is likely to be flat-out bored with the claim that Jesus is the embodiment of centuries-old Jewish prophecies (“how quaint”, we can imagine him saying), so they frame it for him, inferring that his end-game is to revolt against Rome, an assertion that is backed up by precisely nothing.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
- Leviticus 20:7
Check: when Jesus is before the Sanhedrin, they ask the question “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” and He answers truthfully: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62).
By their own laws it would be considered blasphemy to claim this if it isn’t true, BUT one must first prove that it isn’t. If your religion states that this cannot be true for anyone except one very special person, you cannot by default kill everyone who makes the claim. First you must prove the claim wrong; and they can’t. Not having actual evidence of blasphemy, they only have two appropriate and lawful ways to respond:
But, as we can see, the High Priest and his cabal aren’t interested in getting at the truth, they’re interested in putting a man to death; and they’re using God’s name to do it. This is the very definition of using the Lord’s name in vain. God’s name is not to be invoked to achieve our selfish ends, and lawful ends are clearly not their objective.
So, the religious leaders do what the bible has made them famous for doing. They attend lovingly to religious trifles while spitting all over God’s perfect law. Surely this isn’t news. But what are we to infer from this? What’s the lesson today?
Jesus warned the Pharisees about removing a fly from a cup of coffee while simultaneously inhaling a horse (I paraphrase, see Matthew 23:24), and they ignored Him, quite fantastically, as it turns out. But what about me? Am I upholding virtues that do little except caress my precious ego while simultaneously tap dancing all over the spirit of God’s sacred law to love Him with my whole heart and my neighbor as myself? Are you?
Are you withholding forgiveness from someone who’s wronged you while cheerfully attending bible studies and bake sales? Are you proudly dropping your requisite 10% into the collection plate while gossiping ruthlessly about the person who sits three pews down? Are you lamenting the sexual depravity of your neighbor and concurrently defrauding him in your place of business? Do you proudly abstain from even the smell of alcohol while joyfully condemning the alcoholic?
Look, attend your bible studies and bake sales, give faithfully to your church, abstain from the sexual celebrations and excesses of this post-Christian era, abstain from drunkenness and drug abuse, that’s all good stuff. But consider carefully the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23); beware the sins of the heart. If we think we can polish the outside of the cup while leaving the more egregious, internal sins to fester unimpeded, we’re wrong: dangerously wrong.
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?
Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
- Psalm 127:1
I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.
- Galatians 5:4-6 (The Message)
There is a critical difference between practicing obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ and embarking on self-centered religious expeditions. The former comes from a place of worship: namely worship of the Triune God and a profound recognition of His sovereign right to rule our lives. The second also comes from a place of worship, albeit a different sort altogether. This is the worship of an idol that we hope to become, an image of a self-styled, successful religionist: someone who is able to bend the ear of other Christians and lead them in grand and impressive projects.
We must be ever vigilant to ensure we’re on the right side of this problem.
How? Good question. Ego is a tempting mistress. Vanity is ruthless and persistent, eager to lead us down false and fruitless paths; and she is not above using the appearance of virtue to do so. Search your heart; can you count the number of times you’ve used religious or moralistic rationalizations to justify egocentric conduct? I can’t. There are far too many to count.
So how? How can we ensure we’re being obedient to righteousness, rather than enslaved to moralistic vanity? Why, the Cross of course. The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the power to confess our sin anew every single day – as many times as we encounter it – invite the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and plead with Him to continue His beautiful work: reconstructing our hearts.
This is why Christ commanded us to remain firmly attached to Him at all times:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:1-4
In my next post, I’ll discuss how critical a role the Church plays in our connection to Jesus. For now, suffice it to say we do well to resist the temptation to practice an idolatry of the ideal self, and to empty ourselves before Christ so the Holy Spirit may fill the void.
Heavenly Father, how tyrannized we are by our own egos! We long to put ourselves aside and invite you in, so that we may be remade, and that we may gladly follow in your footsteps, the footsteps of a loving but uncompromising servant. We can’t do this without your grace, and without your loving hand firmly in our lives. We invite you in and ask you to continue this worthwhile work, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: you and I might read the bible and come away with different theological interpretations on what we’re reading. The further we dive into the details, the murkier the waters get. The bible models a believer’s baptism, but is infant baptism okay? The bible doesn’t speak against it. What about “just war”? Is there such a thing? Certainly there was in Old Testament times, but does that apply to new covenant Christians? Sincere bible believing Christians can believe numerous and opposing things on many such subjects, and still be sanctified by the blood of Christ. We’ll know one day; for now, we postulate.
With that being said, we ought not to come to different conclusions about what we are to do.
There are more things on the list of course (the Lord’s supper for example), but you get the point. These commands are clear, crystal clear; they brook little debate.
And yet, I can sense the opposition coming on already, armed with Ephesians 2:8 (“for it is by grace you have been saved…”) and an accusation that I’m “preaching works”. Such people will grudgingly acknowledge that Jesus actually told us to do stuff, but infer that any attempt to remind confessing Christians of such commands is somehow heretical; it may lead the faithful to incorrectly believe they’re saved by what they do, rather than what Jesus has done. Our obligation is to believe, and only to believe. Anything else is essentially optional. Ephesians 2:8, end of discussion.
Okay, let’s do this, shall we? We can start by putting this verse in its proper context, which is best done (first and foremost) but providing the verses that surround it. What does Paul have to say? He says that we used to be disobedient, dead in our transgressions and sins, but aren’t anymore (v. 1). This disobedience is now the exclusive domain of those who remain under the power of Satan (v. 2). He says we were made alive, as opposed to remaining dead in our disobedience (v. 5). He goes on to state that we were created specifically to do good works (v. 10).
Clearly, Paul believes (and this is stated repeatedly in his many letters) that we were saved from our sin and disobedience to enter into a life of obedience and overall God-pleasing behavior. To this end, Jesus goes out of His way to clarify the differences between what pleases man, and what pleases God (this is, essentially, the whole tenor of the Sermon on the Mount - read Matthew chapters 5 & 6), just so we’re not confused as to what this looks like.
Further, Jesus clarifies and solidifies Paul’s contention on the primacy of good works:
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
- Matthew 5:16 (emphasis mine)
Contrary to popular belief, this verse isn’t about putting a Jesus fish on the back of your car, listening to Christian music, wearing Christian baubles or even telling people that you love Jesus. There’s nothing with any of these things, of course, but that’s not what Jesus is saying here. We are to let God’s light shine out to the world through our good works. We are to be “guilty” of such acts of kindness and benevolence that people around us don’t know what to do except glorify God. Our moral character is to be so radically changed for the better that the devil doesn’t have any grounds from which to launch his accusations.
So what is Paul saying? After all, he goes on quite the tangent in Galatians 5, stating:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
- Galatians 5:1
Aren’t I just trying to yoke you in slavery, to tangle you back up in a web of legalistic rule-keeping? Aren’t I trying to detract from the assurance of your salvation and set you back to earning it?
No, I’m not. You are saved by grace through faith, and faith means a lot more than attending church once a week and telling people that you believe stuff. Satan believes that Jesus is the son of God (James 2:19), and he’s not saved, is he?
Look, I’m not qualified to get into a debate on the mechanics of salvation. Frankly, I’m not sure any of us are. How exactly does it work? At which point to we become saved? The moment we confess? Baptism? First act of repentance? If we were predestined for salvation, were we ever damned in the first place? But again, the bible is clear on what we are to do. Believe, repent, get baptized (etc.), and don’t get cocky, because it’s God’s grace that saves, not human effort.
I will say that in Galatians 5 Paul is talking very specifically about circumcision and a ceremonial law that was given to the Israelites for the purposes of identification and the forgiveness of sin. Sacrificing animals for the forgiveness of sins seems awfully redundant and pointless if our sins are forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice, does it not? But never did Paul, or Jesus, or any biblical writer, ever advocate against the performance of good works.
Good works are not the same thing as religious works, and in these passages, Paul was trying to address the latter. For Paul, good works should be the necessary and inevitable outpourings of faithful and obedient hearts, which in themselves ought to be the true identification of a sincere believer (see Romans 6:1-14, Galatians 6:1-10, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Though he doesn’t state this outright, it could be argued that one of the reasons Paul thinks so little of circumcision is because it’s no longer necessary; God’s people should now be readily identifiable by the radical transformation that has taken place in their lives.
True, if you’re saved, you’re saved by God’s grace through your faith, not by works. But an “acceptance” of Christ that engenders no actual intent to change one’s life is not a biblical description of faith.
Are you saved? Great! Now get to work.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.