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Sunday, 24 June 2012

Yes It's Raining - And We Love It!

Last week I took my wife Alex to Torquay in Devon, after accepting a recommendation to visit Torquay from Keith, a very good friend of mine who grew up in Devon. This particular area of the United Kingdom is also known as The English Riviera, because of the remarkably mild winters, allowing various species of palm trees and other vegetation, particularly from the Mediterranean, to flourish there.

We had just one day when the weather was warm, dry and sunny. The sea sparkled blue, the trees lush, people were in a good mood and our spirits were high. And I thanked God for such lovely weather we were able to enjoy while we set off on a day-hike on the South Devon Coast Path, a section of the West Coast Path, a hiking trail stretching 630 miles (1,020 km) from Studland Bay in Dorset to Minehead in Somerset.

However, two days later, dawn came with an overcast sky, and as soon as we set off for a day out, it began to rain, and it rained moderate to heavy all day with hardly a respite.

Our cool temperate climate here in the UK is always the talk of the town. In fact, I can go as far to say that a comment about the weather is a form of greeting between two passing strangers, and it is a good ice-breaker when in need to start a conversation. This is because, unlike the Mediterranean, which has long dry summers, our weather is constantly changing from one day to the next. I would go as far to say that declaring a drought after a couple of days of sunshine is now a standing joke.

After two or three months of frequent rain, our media is already describing our summer as "a total washout," together with "gloomy Britain," and statistically "the wettest June since records began," and "a month's rain in 24 hours." On the BBC weather forecasting, the attitude of the presenter is always to pray away the rain and, "we look forward for some sunshine over the weekend." If the Met Office cannot dish out the sunshine, then the BBC forecast for rain is often delivered with an apologetic tone of voice. Then among the academics, there was first the warning of global cooling, with the threat that we were about to enter a new Ice Age. Then a few years later, it was global warming, both caused by man-made pollutants pumped daily into our atmosphere. Nowadays, the issue is climate change, after a series of cool British summers seem to belie any idea that our planet was getting warmer. Whichever term the academics are giving to our climate situation, the message is clear: a climatic Armageddon is just around the corner, and it will be upon us if we don't act quickly enough.

At times I wonder how did such ideas originate? As far as I recall, our climate had always been changeable. Hot, dry weather hardly ever outlasted a week here in the UK, with just a rare occasion of such weather lasting up to a month. Even in the art world, English scenery painted in bygone ages often depict wet weather, as if just as normal then as now. So why all this talk and statistics about our present climate?

Personally, I believe this to be linked with our ability to travel internationally for leisure, something past generations were denied. And as Mediterranean countries opened their doors for tourism in the 1960s, so it became a natural habit to compare their climate favourably against ours. So international tourism grew to be such a successful business, until it is only second to Defence in being the largest service industry in the UK.

The British are crying out for sunshine, it seems, as if their lives depend on it. Just a couple of days ago the Daily Express national newspaper carried a threat of an airport strike corresponding to the holiday getaway after the end of school term. The front-page headline said in words depicting the "sheer misery added to thousands of holidaymakers looking for some sunshine after weeks of gloom here in Britain..."  Such is the adversity we feel towards wet weather.

But do we as Christians need to feel that way?

My wife and I had spent three full days in Devon, not including the two additional days set aside for the train journeys. On day one, we had wall-to-wall sunshine, strong enough to burn our skins red. As already mentioned, we day-hiked on the South Devon Coast Path. For us, it was heaven. Then on the second day we took a ferry to sail across the bay to a fishing town of Brixham. Then the sky was overcast all day but still mainly dry. By evening of that day a wind has started to blow, making the return sailing turbulent as the boat tossed about on the rising waves. Standing outside on deck, holding tight to the railing with the sea just two or three feet below, I swayed with the boat and looked out to sea, to prevent seasickness. I loved it. During that experience, I thought about the prophet Jonas out at sea during an even greater storm. How he would have felt on board that rocking ship, not having gone out to sea ever in his entire life, as seafaring was not part of Jewish life and culture during Old Testament times.

Then on the third day, (also suggested by my good mate Keith,) we decided on a visit to a nearby village of Cockington, basically an open air museum of how life was like during Victorian days, with craft workshops in full operation, particularly in glass-blowing. The wind of the previous evening brought the rain, and it rained moderate to heavy throughout the entire day. It was easy for us to feel gloomy in such an environment, with all the lovely colours of trees, leaves, flowers and the general surroundings turned to various shades of grey. But did we feel "let down" by God?

Standing by the stream near Cockington, Devon. The orbs are raindrops.

Not at all! First we needed to consider our state of health. My wife's skin, especially at her forehead, had turned red from the full day's sunshine, and further sunshine would have brought greater discomfort, maybe affecting her health altogether. But on the positive side, the path to the village passed through a park which had a stream (or a creek) running alongside the path, which became a boardwalk when ever the stream meandered underneath it. The rain had swelled the stream to full flow, and to me there is something very spiritual about a fast flowing brook. Both path and stream were at the foot of a forest-covered hill, with branches of trees providing some form of shelter from the rain.

When we arrived at the village church, we went inside and I knelt down and gave thanks to God for all his goodness, including the rain, which plays a major role in sustaining life by feeding our rivers, lakes and reservoirs as well as turning all the lovely vegetation around us to a deep, rich green, a sign of good health. When we arrived back at the beach, I practically danced and rejoiced in the goodness of God, no matter how ugly and unattractive the weather had made the coastline to be. Although it rained hard, we sauntered back into Torquay town centre in high spirits, to look forward to the plate of hot steak and kidney pie and potato chips (fries) at a local fish restaurant.

With seaweed for company, we felt jubilation as it rained on the beach.

Wet weather can easily get us down and make us feel depressed and gloomy. Public opinion, backed by the Media, endorse this, and has led to the sprouting of a highly prosperous tourism industry, with multiple millions of Brits heading for sunshine every year. But the cool temperate climate of the UK is due to its rather isolated position between the vast Atlantic Ocean on one side, and the North Sea on the other. Britain is also at the right lateral position for the warm, moist air carried by the North Atlantic Drift to meet the cold Polar air, resulting in these low pressure swirls which brings the rain. Because this is a fallen world due to sin our present global climate, including our cool temperate, is the best to sustain all life. For a new, better creation to come into being, God will have to intervene and put away sin forever and to usher in perfect righteousness. This is the definite promise that only God will keep and fulfil. And for everyone who have believed on the name of Jesus Christ for salvation can look forward to an eternity with God in a magnificent new creation which will never be spoilt by sin again.

Nor for that matter, wet weather.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Moses Suffers Rejection

Moses was, and still is, regarded as one of the greatest men of God ever to walk this planet. Other than Jesus Christ of course. But as we shall see, both Moses and Jesus suffered rejection, not necessarily by strangers or foreigners, but by their own people.

Moses was born a Hebrew, a descendant of Jacob (Israel) during the days when his people were enslaved to the Egyptians, under the harsh rule of their king, or Pharaoh, who had already imposed a law throughout all the land that every male Hebrew child must be killed immediately after birth. The purpose of this was for the Egyptian men to intermarry with the Hebrew girls, and eventually having the nation of Israel, after two or three generations, to fully assimilate into becoming Egyptians, and on a long term basis, to destroy any chance of the promise of the coming Messiah.

The parents of baby Moses had already known that this child was chosen by God to lead the nation out of Egypt, into the promised land God had already promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He had two older siblings, sister Miriam, who was eight years old, and a brother Aaron, who was three. Moses' father was Amram and his mother was Jochebed (Exodus 6:20.)

Jochabed, the mother of Moses, had the child placed in a waterproof vessel and floated down the river Nile to escape Pharaoh's edict to have him killed. Already knowing his destiny as a future national leader, she sent her daughter Miriam to watch over her brother, knowing that the daughter of Pharaoh bathed at a certain spot at the river every morning at a particular time. Sure enough, the young princess spotted the vessel and the crying baby inside. Seeing that he was already circumcised, she identified the child as a Hebrew, and instead of slaying him as her father would have instructed, she sent Miriam to find someone who would wean the child in preparation for her adoption of him. The result that Jochabed, the baby's own mother, was paid by the Government to raise her own son, fully under the king's approval.

The first few years of Moses' life were spent in his own home, with Mum and Dad. They were also the most crucial years of his life. Going by the testimony of other Scriptures, young Moses sat on his mother's lap to be taught of his Hebrew origin, his people the children of Israel, and his future destiny as a leader and deliverer. By the time the adoption was due, which by then Moses was about five or six years old, he knew enough of who he was, and he also knew that his own people were slaves to the Egyptians, and how his own people, including his own father Amram, suffered cruel oppression under the might of the Egyptians.

The upbringing of Moses at home could be seen today as a model for Christian parenting. By instructing young children of the Christian faith, coupled with setting an example, the child's faith will most likely grow and develop into adulthood, as was the case with Moses. As a window cleaner, I have seen some of my clientele living in well-to-do middle class estates have their young looked after by Granny or a childminder rather than staying at home to instruct the child in the ways of God during their crucial years. In these cases, it is not merely trying to make ends meet and keep the house afloat. Rather it's the case of a young mother fulfilling her purpose of holding a university degree.

Moses was then adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, and he became an Egyptian prince, with all the amenities entitled to by members of Royalty. The life of this young Hebrew was a vivid contrast to those of his own brethren who slaved under the whip. According to the testimony of Stephen, Moses grew up learning all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22.) We have an idea on the wisdom Moses grew up under. Dr. McMillen, in his book, None of these Diseases, mentioned the Papyrus Ebers, a medical book written in Egypt around 1,552 BC. In it, one is advised the application of asses' dung and worm's blood for embedded splinters. If bitten by a poisonous snake, water poured over an idol was drank by the patient. Drugs for other diseases included lizard's blood, swine's teeth, putrid meat, animal fat, and faeces from various animals including humans. Also ointment made from a tooth of a donkey crushed in honey should be massaged into the scalp to preserve hair growth. The Papyrus Ebers, the medical book for all university students of the day became standard for Moses' education. However, do we see any of the Papyrus Ebers appear in any of the writings of Moses? Not at all. His faith in God had superseded his high level of education to the point that in not one instance do we read of a hair preparation consisting of the heel of an Abyssinian greyhound, date blossoms and asse's hoofs boiled in oil, anywhere between Genesis and Deuteronomy.

Hebrews 11:25 also tells us that Moses, while as a prince, did not partake in the fleeting pleasures of sin, but yearned for the welfare of his own people, and identified himself with them. The "fleeting pleasures of sin" does not mean a family day trip to Disneyland! Rather, the entertainments put on for Royalty including a harem of young beautiful women who danced erotically to inflame the sexual desire. The prince then had the right to escort the girl of his choice to his bedroom. Moses, instead preferred to be out and about to check on the welfare of his own people and help them as much as he could. Here we can see the instruction received as a young child from his mother bearing fruit. He saw himself as a Hebrew, not an Egyptian prince. He also knew of his destiny - that as a leader and deliverer of his people from slavery in Egypt.

Moses began to apply the promise of his destiny while he was forty years old. One day, he saw one of his brethren being beaten by an Egyptian guard. After looking around to see whether there were any other Egyptian about, and finding himself alone from the view of anyone, he killed the guard and buried him in the sand. The victim should have been highly thankful. Instead he began to gossip, probably with the intention to exalt Moses as a hero.

News began to spread, and by the next day the news of the murder spreading across the land was already a high possibility. Obviously, by the time Moses had set off on his rounds, the news had not yet arrived at the palace. But some time later, he came across two Hebrews fighting, and he tried to intervene. The one who was in the wrong turned round to Moses and cried out,
"Who made you ruler and judge over us? Have you come to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?" (Exodus 2:14). So famous were these words, that Stephen repeated them in his discourse to the Jewish leaders (Acts 7:27.)

At this, Moses fled the country. It was easy to assume that the wrath of the king would give him cause for his flight. But in Hebrews 11:27 it says that by faith Moses left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. Not fearing the king's anger. So what was it that caused this prince to flee from Egypt? His resentment for the wicked betrayal against him made by his own brethren. Instead of rallying to him for leadership, as he was brought up to believe, he was turned in by his own people to be executed by Pharaoh for murdering the Egyptian guard. In short, Moses was rejected by those he loved and cared for. And like Jesus Christ himself, "his own received him not."

Moses' resentment over his rejection burned in his heart for the next forty years. During that time he mingled with the Midianites, and married a wife from them, whose name was Zipporah. The rejection had transformed him from a mighty Egyptian prince to a shepherd of sheep out in the desert. The same happened with Jesus Christ. When he was rejected by his own people, the Jews, who crucified him, after his resurrection he began to assemble a people for himself, mainly Gentiles, to be his bride. Just as Moses later returned to Egypt to deliver his own people from slavery, so likewise, Jesus Christ will one day return to rule over Israel on the throne of his father David.

So deep was his resentment, that at the right time God had to appear to him in a vision of a burning bush. This burning bush vision was no accident or coincidence. The bush was a thorn bush, one that would burn quite easily. Instead, the flames roared but the bush itself was never consumed. The bush was a symbol of the nation of Israel throughout its whole history - burning, burning, burning but never consumed. After thousands of years of cruel persecution, including the Holocaust, the Jews are still with us to this day. They will never go out of existence. And there are many unfulfilled prophesies about the future state of the Jews. As the bush was burning, but never consumed, so the Jews will continue to suffer, even today under the oppression of neighbouring Arab nations, yet their existence will be preserved. God never goes back on his promises.

Moses' reluctance to return to Egypt to stand in front of Pharaoh was not because he was afraid for his life. The previous king involved had long died and the murder most likely forgotten. Moses' refusal to return was borne out of resentment his rejection by his own people had brought about. Even with his older brother Aaron to act as his own spokesman, Moses' bitterness festered. And this can be proved by an almost intrusive passage of Scripture found in Exodus 4:24-26. Intrusive, because it was an interruption of the normal progress of events during his journey back to Egypt. Here, while Moses and his family were spending the night at an inn, God met Moses with the intention to kill him. Here we see God's patience with Moses just about exhausted, and he was about to be slain, so he would go to Paradise in waiting for his eternal redemption, which would take place at the Crucifixion.

The cause of this interruption of events was Moses' refusal to circumcise his son Gershom. This was not because he had forgotten or overlooked the Hebrew custom. It was a show of defiance, a refusal to identify himself or his son as a Hebrew. Despite his audience with the Almighty himself in a burning bush, his heart was still consumed by bitterness. Had not been for the quick action by his wife Zipporah, Moses would have been slain by God so that his soul would be redeemed.

I am aware that there are some preachers and church leaders who believe that salvation can be lost if one does not hold faithful to the end, or commits a grievous sin. One particular American church leader and author in Washington D.C. believes that King Solomon is in Hell for falling away from true worship of God and began turning to idols in his old age, without counting the faith Solomon had which resulted in the building of the Temple. Also according to this leader, even King David had a brush with eternal Hell when he committed adultery with Uriah's wife Bathsheba. And no doubt this same leader would have placed Moses in Hell had he been slain by God in the inn for not circumcising Gershom. I am sad by the spouting of such nonsense by recognised and well educated church leaders, authors and preachers! If such teaching was true, very few, if any would have made it to Heaven. And the few who did would have something to boast about, but not before God.

In this world our lives are not perfect, and we are still prone to sin, thus the necessity for God to save us and to keep us saved throughout our lives. This is known as Eternal Security of the Believer, and it is God's doing, not ours. When a person truly believes, he is eternally saved, even if there is an apparent cooling of his faith afterwards. And I have seen myself that those whose faith had cooled does not generally fall back into deliberate wickedness or take pleasure in pursuing sin. It was by faith that Moses as a prince looked out for the welfare of his people instead of seeking the treasures of Egypt or partaking in a fleeting pleasure of sin. It was by faith that David slew Goliath. And it was by faith that King Solomon took charge with the building of the Temple. And it is through faith that the righteousness of God is imputed on the believer. This had always been true throughout the Old Testament as well as the New.

Do you feel not that welcome by brethren in your church? Do you feel as if you were spat upon by members of your church after years of sacrificial service? Is that the thanks or appreciation you get after so much effort put in for their benefit? Perhaps you too have walked out of the church and are now living in a desert. You too may fester bitterness in your heart after what they have done to you.

I have been through all this. I know how it feels to be rejected by those who are your spiritual family. But the best course of action is to carry on loving and accepting them as they are. Impossible? With man that is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

Moses eventually led the fledgling nation of Israel out of Egypt, and his name is written in the Hall of Fame as a man of faith. He eventually allowed the Holy Spirit to lead, and we ought to do the same.

It is the only way to overcome the bitter resentfulness that often comes with being rejected - especially from those we love the most.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Conflict Over Salvation!

In my last posting I began with a full quote of James 2:14-26. Here James wrote that faith within the believer without any works to accompany such faith makes his beliefs lifeless. A "dead" faith does not impress the beholder or in interested inquirer, so I reasoned, especially if the believer says that God exist yet "sucks up" to the rich man at the same time show contempt to the poor man who also happens to walk into the assembly. Snobbery is murder, according to James 2:11.

It was likely that James was rebuking snobbery right through to verse 26, even though there were no verses or chapter breaks in his original letter. We are to this day aware on whether our faith makes an impression on the beholder or not. Nothing can make a finer example on this issue than Christian parents, who attend church regularly, and the way they bring up their children. Children have this distinctive knack of spotting phoniness or hypocrisy in their parent's faith, and snobbery is certainly one of many faith-killers. Statistics indicate that more children of church-goers grow up as atheists than as Christian believers. If the parents' faith is not issuing good works, the child is less likely to take to such faith and will conclude that church attendance is a waste of time.

The core of this issue is verse 14, which reads:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?

Most Christians and many churches indicate that the "him" in the emphasised question means that the believer himself was not saved because there were no works to prove or endorse his salvation. It is reading such verses which makes me wish that both James and Paul were still alive and I can talk to them. I would ask why the two apparently disagree on this issue - Do we need to work for our salvation? Or to prove our salvation? Or to secure our salvation? Or even because we are already saved? In fact I would go even further and knock their heads together, telling them to be more specific in what they are telling us, reminding them that the Roman Catholic Church has always used James 2:14 to justify that works are necessary for salvation - and had been doing for the last 1,600 years. And even Martin Luther, who was converted by just reading Romans 1:17 - The just shall live by faith - totally rejected the epistle of James as heresy!

And how do these two apostles apparently disagree? (Note the word apparently.) James asks, "Does such faith (without deeds) save him?" - indicating that the answer to that is "No."

Yet Paul made it very clear, especially in his letter to the Christians in Rome, on how one can be saved. He writes:

That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified and it is with your mouth you confess and are saved.
Romans 10:9-10.

Earlier in his letter, he wrote:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about - but not before God. What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."
Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
"Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord would never count against him."
Romans 4:1-8.

Then just for further backing, I quote what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. (2:8-9)

So here we see what looks like a blatant contradiction - James versus Paul.

But in Romans 10:9, Paul adds confessing with the mouth that Jesus as Lord as part of the plan. But what does Paul mean when he addresses Jesus as Lord? Those who believe in Lordship salvation believe that the Lordship of Jesus is meant in the realm of an employer - that the believer submits to Jesus in toto as a worker does to his employer. That is not the meaning of the verse.

In the days of ancient Rome, every citizen had to swear his allegiance to the Emperor with the words, Caesar is Lord. Very much like if here in the UK I were to swear my allegiance to Elizabeth II as Her Royal Majesty the Queen. Police and military recruits do this to this day. But this does not make the Queen my employer, but an admission of being a subject in her Kingdom and supporter of the Constitution. While swearing allegiance to the Queen as Head of State and also head of the Church of England, to the Roman citizen, by swearing allegiance to Caesar was admitting that the Emperor was God.

The resurrection of the body was something no one in history had ever achieved, except Jesus Christ, and to this day, nobody else had ever risen from the dead. Instead, the bones of even the greatest saints are still with us, including those of Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, John and Paul. The resurrection of Christ was the ultimate proof that he, and not Caesar, was God. So during the days of the Roman emperor, if the believer confessed Jesus as Lord, he was literally putting his own life in jeopardy. Many were executed for confessing that Jesus was the Christ, not Caesar. Since self-preservation is the greatest instinct in all humans, confession of Jesus being God in the face of persecution can only come from the heart. And to have such a conviction is proof that the heart has been regenerated and has become the seat for the Holy Spirit to dwell in. It's the only way that the fear of death is overcome. Therefore we can conclude that it is the regenerated heart-belief which comes first, which leads to the verbal confession.

The Colosseum in Rome was the site of many Christian executions in the days of Caesar.

Unbelievers in general do not confess Jesus Christ as Lord, even in peaceful times, as at present, in the Western world. But the Bible also indicate that at the Judgement, many of the unsaved will cry out "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in you name, and in your name cast out devils, and in your name done many wonderful works?" (Matthew 7:22.)  According to this, it does look as if  one does acknowledge that Jesus Christ was Lord in the sense of aristocracy, a great teacher, or as one setting an example. But not as God incarnated who died and rose physically from the dead. I once read in a popular national newspaper that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but fell unconscious. Still apparently lifeless, he was taken down from the cross and later recovered to the extent that he was able to walk away to some distant location, never to be seen again. This was a parallel story to that of the Muslims, who believe to this day that it was Judas Iscariot who died on the cross, not Jesus Christ. And not to mention the array of scientists and academics who use the media to deny the reality of Divine Creation in favour of Evolution, which is another way of denying that Jesus Christ is God.

So we can therefore conclude that on a once-for-all-time heart belief in the Resurrection of Christ and the ability to confess this to another person guarantees salvation. It is a reminder of what was stated by the apostle John when he wrote:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (and not because he failed to produce appropriate works.)
John 3:14-18.

Now we need to ask: Is there a conflict between Paul and James?

No there is no conflict. By reading the whole letter of James, one should be able to see that it was a rebuke for favouritism, snobbery, chasing after riches and planning for the future without any consideration for God's plans and his will for their lives. It was written mainly to Jews assembling in their local synagogue, although it is easy to imagine a Christian meeting in a Gothic church building with stained glass windows, and inside filled with pews and fronted by a pulpit, and an ageing bell tower outside. But the context of the letter is the same for both. But it appears that James was concerned on how the church looked to an outsider visiting. Would the visitor be judged according to wealth and social status? How would the poor visitor feel after following a rich man into the building and being treated with disdain after watching the rich man being fawned upon? Rather than convert to Christ, he would more likely walk out feeling disgusted.

James wrote:

You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did...You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (2:22, 24.)

Justified by whom? By God? God looks on the heart and seeing his belief that Christ was resurrected and therefore must be the true Lord rather than Caesar, fully justifies him. But although his faith is clear before God, it is invisible before men, who cannot see into the heart as God can. So the only way that faith can be manifest is through works. And James takes up the issue here.

Since last week, after posting my last blog on the subject, the feedback which followed has made me sit down and think things over. The words for concern were these:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?

Abraham had his faith tested by God by telling him to offer his son Isaac upon the altar. But was this because God did not know beforehand how Abraham would respond? There is a serious problem with this idea, namely, the denial of God's omniscience. In other words, God did not know what was going to happen next! So why did God test Abraham's faith, even already knowing the outcome before he was even born? For the benefit of his descendants, and for the benefit of us who believe. Isaac himself told all in the community, and of course, both Jacob and Esau and their sons would have known about it. Not to mention the group of relatives and perhaps hundreds of servants and other associates. Abraham's act of faith had placed his name in the Hall of Fame for all eternity.

But Abraham was justified by faith many years earlier. During that time, there were no specific works done by Abraham. His justification was a heart matter between God and himself. So this is why I believe that the lack of works in the believer would not impress the inquirer or the curious. Such faith is invisible to them.

But there is one more issue that needs to be looked at. In my last article, the words would such faith save him? I had applied this to the inquirer, not to the believer himself. Here is the core of the misunderstanding. If those words were referring to salvation, then indeed, faith alone does not save, we must work to obtain, secure or prove our salvation before God. That was why I believed it was the inquirer if salvation was referred to. And I still believe in this. However, there are other options that may be considered.These are:

1. The verse has nothing to do with salvation. Instead it has to do with the welfare of the poor man. The poor man will not benefit physically if the believer simply says, "I believe in God," but gives nothing to eat or any spare clothing to keep him warm. In this context, the word save, means the poor man saved from the cold and going hungry, with the "him" referring to the poor man, not the believer himself. This is, in my view, a very valid option.

2. The verse refers to the poor man being the unsaved inquirer who, unimpressed with his snobbery and cossetting up to the rich as well as lack of generosity, walks away disgusted. To the poor man, the Christian faith was not worth further consideration. This view is the main subject of this blog and the previous one, and it is the view I more likely to consider, after reading the testimony of not only Charles Dickens, but seeing how people perceive the churches today.

3. The word "him" in verse 14 referring to the believer, not the inquirer or the poor man. If this is true, then this "faith" is only a nominal profession, such as one baptised as a baby, and grows up in a "Christian Country." He would then only attend church for baptisms, weddings and funerals - and perhaps on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday as well. Such nominal adherence to the faith does not regenerate the heart with a new birth of the Spirit which would result in good works. This view is upheld by many Christians and churches alike.

4. This verse agrees with the view of the Roman Catholic Church that faith coupled with works merit salvation. If true, then James contradicts Paul, who insist that faith alone is required for salvation. Akin to this is the view that works is needed to "stay saved," an opinion held by those who believe that salvation can be lost if one does not remain faithful to the end.

These are, I believe, the four different views of James 2:14. Every Christian would adhere to one of these views. As is with this fact that I wish the apostles were alive today, to "blow the gaff" on any views that would turn out to be false. But without any of these apostles, but with the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, that's all about learning about the Kingdom of God. We are students, and I admit that now and again I can get things wrong, as even the apostle Peter also got it wrong (Galatians 2:11-14.) I thank and praise God for his patience and love, and will always correct the thinking of his children with gentleness as a loving Father would.

James, Paul and you too, John - let us enjoy a good hug...

Monday, 4 June 2012

James 2:14-26? - Sure Enough, Charles Dickens

James 2:14-26 says (NIV) -

What good is it, my brothers,if a man claims to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it's not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, "You have faith, I have deeds."

Show me your faith without deeds, and  I will show you my faith in what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe - and shudder.

You foolish man. Do you want evidence that faith without works is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off on a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Last week I wrote about the rich, arrogant, racist Persian Prime Minister Haman, one of the four key characters in the book of Esther. Then I quoted a portion of the second chapter of James, rebuking favouritism. In other words, Christians were cosseting up to the rich while despising the poor. Then James goes on to write that if the poor man was an unbeliever but also an interested inquirer, he would most likely to have been unimpressed with the believer's faith if he was treated badly, while at the same time, swooning at the rich. Thus, the inquirer would most likely to have remained unsaved, thinking that the Christian faith lacked any credibility for further consideration. This is the theme of the Scripture quoted above.

I imagine the apostle turning in his grave, as he has been doing for the last two millennia. If ever there was a passage in the Bible so misread and so misunderstood, it is in verses 14 to 26 of the second chapter of his letter. This misunderstanding having brought catastrophe in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and later, amongst Protestants. Its Catechism on Sotorology is faith plus works, and they will point to James 2:14-26 to prove their point. So how is this passage misunderstood?  The "him" in the emphasised "Can faith save him?" is referred by the Catholic Church to be the Christian believer, not the unbelieving inquirer, as James himself was referring to. This error had become the foundation for an edifice of doctrine which insist that faith in Christ alone is not enough for salvation - that works must accompany faith in order for one to be saved. There is a danger underlying this assumption, namely that the Crucifixion of Christ had lost much of its power to fully atone for one's sins, and the resulting gap must be filled in by the sinner himself in order to enter Heaven after death.

The Roman Catholic Church freely admits this. Since the Crucifixion does not fully atone, according to them, then come the need to confess to a priest, to undergo Penance, which is a course of special prayers and good works assigned by the priest to the penitent, the false doctrine of Purgatory, with the need for indulgences (a pass out of Purgatory for a quicker entry into Heaven) the need to pray to Mary using the Rosary, the reverence of special relics and sacred locations, the absolute need for infant baptism and membership of  "the one true Church," the partaking of the Holy Eucharist as a sacrament and the keeping of the Church's commandments - without any of these, there is no hope of salvation. Clearly, faith alone in Christ Crucified is not enough.

This edifice of faith/works for salvation had disastrous results in Church history. It made everyone - clergy and laity - to live under the Law and to be enslaved to the Law, which is in itself unable to save, only condemns. This resulted in a judgmental attitude which brought the end result of first, a rise of uncontrolled sinning, and then persecution. The Spanish Inquisition was one example, its lifelong antisemitism was another, along with the atrocious lifestyles of the majority of Popes, particularly during the Middle Ages, and many of the clergy. Even today, there is case after case of priests accused of molesting children, boys in particular. It was Hammer Horror movie director, Christopher Lee, while driving along, was passing a priest who was chatting to a young boy. Horrified, he called out, "RUN, LITTLE ONE! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!" Such is the end result of the faith-plus-works catechism for salvation.

The Protestant churches were not free from this error of misinterpreting James 2:14-26 either. Among many, the erroneous teaching that the apostle was referring to the Christian believer instead of the inquirer, continue to endure to this day. Christians who believe that one's faith  must endure to the end, or to work to "stay saved" or else face the danger of losing one's salvation is again robbing the Cross of its atoning power. When the Atonement loses its power, human effort must fill the gap, or face eternity in Hell. The Church of England during Dickensian days (the 1800s) had a very judgemental attitude which was naturally repulsive to the interested inquirer.

Famous author Charles Dickens produced many works of literature, one of which I'm very familiar with is Oliver Twist. Many have seen the musical version, where a group of workhouse boys sing, Food! Glorious Food, in protest of the watery gruel which made up their daily diet. Along with theatrical and pantomime performances, these romanticised versions of his novel hides the real truth of what the author was trying to tell us, leaving, perhaps, the original novel as a source of study limited to literature undergraduates. In the original novel itself, we read of a discussion taking place between Charles Bates, Oliver and the Dodger about a dog owned by burglar Bill Sikes, after which the author himself gives his verdict. Here is the extract, found on pages 181-182:

"I suppose you don't even know what a prig is?" said the Dodger mournfully.
"I think I know that," replied Oliver, looking up. "It's a th-; you're one, are you not?" inquired Oliver, checking himself.
"I am," replied the Dodger. "I'd scorn to be anything else." Mr Dawkins gave his hat a ferocious cock, after delivering this sentiment, and looked at Master Bates, as if to denote that he would feel obliged by his saying anything to the contrary.
"I am," repeated the Dodger. "So's Fagin. So's Sikes. So's Nancy. So's Bet. So we all are, down to the dog. And he's the downiest one of the lot!
"And the least given to peaching," added Charley Bates.
"He wouldn't so much bark at a witness box, for fear of committing himself; no, not if you tied him up in one, and left him there without wittles for a fortnight," said the Dodger.
"Not a bit of it," observed Charley.
He's a rum dog. Don't he look fierce at any strange cove that laughs or sings when he's in company!" pursued the Dodger.
"Won't he growl at all when he hears the fiddle playing! And don't he hate other dogs as ain't of his breed! Oh no!"
"He's an out-and-out Christian." said Charley.
This was merely intended as a tribute to the animal's abilities, but it was an appropriate remark in another sense, if Master Bates had only known it; for there are a good many ladies and gentlemen, claiming to be out-and-out Christians, between whom, and Mr Sikes' dog, there exist strong and singular points of resemblance.

Cartoon depiction of the scene of above discussion, as in original novel.

Is this what Jesus meant when he instructed his disciples that all men will know that they are his when they love one another? (John 13:34-35) It is interesting that Dickens addresses these church-goers as "ladies and gentlemen" - indicating that they were middle to upper class, and considerable wealthy. But his main thrust was that they were portrayed as fiercely judgemental, and looked down on anyone who don't quite fit into their style. Dickens was not merely expressing his own opinion, but I believe, the way many perceived the churches were like in his day.

It is fortunate that at the church in which I belong to, as well as regularly attend, there is nothing like that depicted above. Rather, we at Ascot Baptist are a group of people of all walks of life, gathering together every Sunday to worship the Lord who saved us, and to have the Bible expounded, to build us up in our faith. Our motto is, everyone is welcome. No issue with race, class, occupation or level of education. For God so loved the world, without any distinction. Heaven is open for all believers, both Jews and non-Jews.

James writing that faith without works is dead had nothing to do with the believer's salvation. Instead, the letter was to rebuke snobbery, cosseting to the rich and arrogance among Christians. If one interested in the faith was to see such behaviour taken place among Christians, he would be put off straight away and walk away with a feeling of disgust. The Christian can boast as much on how close to God he is, without the love and acceptance, the other person cannot be persuaded.

Here in the UK, I have seen the "clique mentality" among younger people, especially back in the 1970s and '80s, when I was in my twenties. Often I felt left out, excluded. What was it I lacked? A high level of education and a profession to go with it, together with an inability to communicate well. To me, the "clique" mentality is wrong and does not reflect the mentality of Christ. Christians still have a long way to go, but what I can see, we are getting there! We need to let any cultural hangups melt away and let the love of Christ flow from our hearts. Then outsiders will be drawn in.

God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

And I guess this applied also to Mr Sike's dog.