Total Pageviews

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Ah! Childhood Christmas!

When I was a boy, Christmas Day did not last for merely a day. Rather it lasted until I returned to school. I guess it began when dreary November gave way to December and with it, the appearance of the Christmas tree at our home, the real one which emits that familiar fragrance only that species of Fir can emit - the fragrance of Christmas joy with presents wrapped in cheerful paper together with a ring of fallen pine leaves slowly accumulating at the base of the tree, itself decorated with fragile glass baubles, strings of tinsel, and small chocolate Santas. Then those Christmas lights, wonderful when all illuminating together but one hell of a curse if one of the bulbs blows!
But the sheer excitement was at daybreak after a sleepless night, when the call came and I found myself rushing from the bedroom to the lounge where all the presents appeared as if by magic overnight. Dressed in pyjamas, the thought of washing my face and dressing in day clothes were as far from my mind as the South Pole is from the Sahara Desert. This was around 1960, give or take, when on that particular Christmas morning, I rushed into the lounge to find an electric train circuit already laid out on the main dining table. Over it stood my Uncle, Dad's elder brother, expecting me to make the bee-line to the miniature railway, and failing to notice the stack of wrapped presents piled nearby. As if fulfilling his expectations, he began to deliver his lecture:
Now, if you had a box of sweets just here, and you took one sweet after another, what would you be left with?
An empty box? I answered, nervously at this apparently huge man.
That is right. You'll be left with an empty box. Now these batteries are just like the sweet box. Use up the electricity and the batteries will lose their power. Now just one circuit.
I switched on the control and the train started to move, and rolled effortlessly until it was where it started.
Now switch off.
But Uncle....
You don't play any more on this until later!
As to calm the situation, Mum intercepted by lifting the pile of other presents and holding it in front, with the words:
Hey, don't forget all these.
One of the brightly wrapped parcels revealed a Lego building set, which took up much of the morning and sufficient enough to take my mind off the forbidden train set.

Although my Uncle's intentions were good, his attitude with the train set and its batteries did not endear my heart to him. Fortunately, the Lego building set saved the day and with it we all had a very good Christmas. But after my Dad's brother and his wife left our house to return home, yes you've guessed it. I was all over the train set, and once alone in the house, while Mum and Dad were both at work and school was still out, I deliberately left the train set racing round the circuit while I went out to the shops, not just to test the endurance of the batteries, but also to spite my absent Uncle. There it is. The law, meant to benefit my well-being and my parent's finances at the same time, instead brought out the reality of sin, kicking up a rebellion against this R.A.F. Warrant Officer.
Christmas is meant to be a time of joy, the giving and receiving of presents, to remind each other of the love between family members. Surely, there can't be anything more exhilarating for a father than to watch his son's eyes sparkle with excitement as he races to rip off the wrapper and shouts with exuberant joy as his gift is revealed. Then watching away the hours as the youngster keeps himself fully engaged with his gift. A sense of accomplishment for the Dad? Isn't that is what Christmas is all about, rather than arguing over the socks his wife had given him, or about a jumper he wouldn't be seen dead in, or for that matter, having a row over what to watch on TV or whose turn it is to do the washing up? I guess that's the reality. As soon as pandering to self starts to creep in, sooner or later the atmosphere will be spoilt when anger follows.
But the point is this. When a parent gives something to his offspring for Christmas (or for any other occasion) it is a demonstration of love. And that is regardless on how the recepient behaves afterwards. As far as I have ever known, I never had any present withdrawn as a result of poor performance. Neither have I known anyone else losing their present, nor have I ever heard of the keeping or withdrawal of a gift on the basis of behaviour or attitude. The gift is an expression of one's love, and surely this cannot be more manifest between husband and wife, especially if the gift is gotten at a great expense. If our own experience has anything to go by, I love my wife dearly and she knows it. Would she then go for another man just because I love her so dearly? The question is, can she do what she wants, knowing that my love for her would not fail? Yes she can. But would she? That is something very different. If I make such a suggestion, she would take offence. Whenever I leave her alone in the house to go to work, I never have to ponder on what she is up to at my absence.
But just suppose she was unfaithful, how would I respond? Would I divorce her, and separate myself from her for the rest of my life? That depends on how much I love her. If divorce is inevitable, then this shows a performance-based love. That is, my love will flow only if she walks the right way. But if I found that I love her anyway, regardless of her behaviour, how would she re-act? Chances would be that my love and acceptance of her would touch her heart for life, and never want to act that way again. That is grace!
I'm not merely pulling stories out of the hat here. Throughout adult life I have personally known two husbands who were unfaithful to their wives by each sleeping with another woman. One wife had kicked her unfaithful husband out of their home and has dissolved their marriage. But the wife of the other guy had forgiven him, and she stayed with him. As far as I'm aware, their marriage remains robust. Real love covers a multitude of sins, with himself loving his wife with a greater fervour than before.
Maybe this could be the reason why such a large percentage of the population don't attend church, nor accept the Bible as authoritative. They perceive God's love to be a performance-based, and not much good at that either. There is even a line of thought among the churches that natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunamis which wiped out countless thousands exactly ten years ago was God's judgement on sin. Such a reasoning does not draw anyone's heart close to God at all, but does instill fear of punishment, and with the distant feeling which matches exactly the relationship between my Uncle and myself in 1960, which was manifest at his funeral in 1998, when I showed respect for his widowed wife's sake, but inwardly felt no sense of loss.

And as I write this blog, there has been some consideration lately whether I want to remain at my local church, the place I call my spiritual home. This has developed due to a strong dislike felt towards me by another person in our church. This guy from London believes in a pretty miserable and truculent God, who I have no desire to follow, let alone worship. This is a direct result of Probational Salvation, or Conditional Security. Perform, perform, perform, or there is a danger of Hellfire. In fact, according to this Londoner, at the Judgement I could well be one of many who will stand outside crying, "Lord, Lord" of Matthew 7:21. I have been told by him that I was wicked, deceitful, blind, wilful, and have driven some out of the fellowship, and many more have complained about me to him (but no one came to me.) So what was this great evil I was so guilty of? Oh yes, showing affection to other men by hugging them.
Yes I agree to a certain extent that there were a few who, over the years, I was insensitive. And to one of them I have apologised. That was several months before he left the church altogether. But according to this brother from London, it was I who drove him out, along with his family. But that did not seem to be the case, as they stayed on long after I made the apology. Rather they left our fellowship because they did not feel right about worshipping God at a racecourse, a national venue for gambling. This kind of attitude is quite common among those with a Pentecostal upbringing, from which this family came.
Why have I "washed the linen in public" so to speak? To show how effective this "Conditional love" can have on our perception of God and with others. This Londoner's God is perceived by him as thin-skinned, critical and judgemental towards all those who don't walk the straight and narrow. No wonder he sees me in exactly the same way. How you see God is how you treat others. However, through prayer and insight, my intention is to be less insensitive, and show a greater respect for the right of others. In the weeks to come, I'll see how that works before I may even consider leaving.
But here is the point. I could never be drawn to a God whose love is conditioned by performance, which includes holding faithful and abstaining from sin. The trouble is, we sin all the time. For example, am I sinning against God by eating pork? I eat pork nearly every day. Or wearing a woolly over a cotton shirt? (Leviticus 19:19) - Or even failing to grow and keep a beard? (Leviticus 19:27) - "Oh," you may say. "The death of Christ on the cross has dealt with all that, we are no longer under the Law." Perhaps not. But what if I were to say that before I married, not a few times I embraced a homosexual and held him tight in my arms. "Ah! Now that's different," I hear you say. Then out comes a quote from 1 Corinthians 6:9, saying that all homosexual offenders shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Never mind that this verse is taken out of context, and Paul was discussing about saints taking disputes to unbelieving magistrates. Rather in my case I have crossed a line between not growing a beard and giving comfort to a gay man, and receiving comfort from him too. No sex involved, instead just locked in a tight embrace.
And all this would make a very interesting scenario if Jesus Christ would be around today. To those who believe in Conditional Security, Jesus would strike dead the two of us locked in a tight embrace, and send us tumbling into Hell, while giving commendation to the family who thought that worshipping at a racecourse was wrong and unholy. Ditto with the poor guy not wearing a tie in church, but to the one smartly dressed, he will reserve for him a place in Heaven. What a load of tosh all this is!
Rather, I believe in the Jesus who would heartily embrace a homosexual man, who would socialise in a tavern, who would talk to hard-core gamblers at a casino, to the down and out in scruffy clothes, to the smoker and heavy drinker. I'm sure he would find himself at home at an A&E of a city hospital, giving hope to the drunken yobs who were caught in a street brawl. In short, God so loved the world.
These are the very people the Lord laid down his life for, to atone for all their sins. This is the love that wins the heart, making the follower wanting, in his own will, to cease from sin, and not by instilling a fear of punishment. This is the love that shines so bright, that all his own righteousness becomes less than nothing by comparison.  It is a love that draws, which brings a response.
Like the child with a new toy. That's why I believe that giving of gifts should be done at other times of the year as well as at Christmas. Let the parent demonstrate his love for his son or daughter. Giving a gift is the same as God giving us the gift of salvation, fully free and totally without merit, but with much love. Unconditional love, without the threat of taking the gift away if the child misbehaves. Sure enough, I do believe in discipline, but that should always be for the child's own good, and not to satisfy the lust for revenge. The thing is, the lad can tell the difference.

And so a self-righteous pharisee in our fellowship has been a heavy burden to my soul. In no way could he edify me by his methods. Sure, I give my insensitivity a think-over, but he could never muster love in my heart, because he has no love in himself for God, for himself, or those like me who happen to walk a different path. So I was left with no alternative but to throw his heavy yoke off my shoulders, because it was hurting my heart. And that's how tragic on how the world sees the church. They don't stay away because they are so evil and wicked. They stay away because they cannot see love, only judgement, hypocrisy and self righteousness.
Oh, for the love of Christ to shine in us so brightly, all our fears and doubts would melt away, and be as excited over his gift of salvation as the young lad with his Christmas present.
Happy New Year!

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Pharisees and Shepherds.

One of the greatest blessing I ever received from God, other than salvation, and my dearest wife Alex, was the privilege of spending time visiting the Holy Land. And what with Christmas coming round, along with carols such as Come all ye Faithful, In the Bleak Midwinter, and Silent Night Holy Night, together with seasonal songs such as Greg Lake's I believe in Father Christmas, even Chris De Burgh's A Spaceman Came Travelling, and what would have been Mum's favourite - Bing Crosby's White Christmas - having stopped at Bethlehem and crouching over a fourteen-prong star set on the floor of a church crypt, has brought new meaning and fresh life to these and many other Christmas songs - both carols and pop alike.

The star traditionally marks the spot where the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, the long-promised Jewish Messiah, whose mission was to reconcile the world to himself, and redeeming all believers from their sins. Many Christians dispute the authenticity of the site, but I couldn't help feel the presence of God there. I was fortunate to visit the church during the Summer of 1993, and as a lone backpacker rather than one of a group, there was a sense of wonder as I stood for a while alone in the crypt, with both the star and the manger to myself, before a ranger escorted another tour group in, crowding out the small chamber. But furthermore, avoiding Christmas was perhaps the best thing rather than the worst, for it has always been traditional for Christians from all over the world to gather at the large quadrangle outside the church to worship, without having a glimpse of the star inside. The Church of the Nativity has always been, and will be, the most important edifice in Bethlehem, and maybe second in the Holy Land after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. While the church in Bethlehem is all about Christmas and the one in Jerusalem is about Easter, to visit both had a big impact to my soul, allowing me to thank the Lord for such historical evidence of his grace.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

But a far less known edifice sits close to the Nativity Church, and that is the Chapel of the Milk. There is a tradition that Mary was breastfeeding her infant son when the call came to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. A drop of milk fell to the ground, so they say, turning the area around it white. As I stood alone in the chapel, with the gentle instrumental version of the beautiful Roman Catholic song, Ave Maria filling the air with such a peaceful tranquil, I did notice a layer of natural white rock on which the chapel was built. And seeing how the authenticity of the miracle would be discredited by both Science and Protestantism alike, among the paintings and statues of the mother and child, there were also Scriptures on display, exhorting us to feed and grow by the milk of the Word, as found in 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12-13, and 1 Peter 2:2, all seemingly giving the chapel its rights for existence.

However, in this world of troubles, including the Israeli/Palestinian unrest outside, as well as much of the unrest within my own heart caused by relationship grit within the fellowship, there is something soothing about a mother with her newborn. What is it about the tenderness that a mother has for her child as she breastfeed him, as so expressed in this quiet and relatively unknown chapel? If I had a grief or sorrow, the Chapel of the Milk would have been a perfect place for solace, and an opportunity to shed tears, and maybe even to cry my heart out.

In some ways, I can't blame the devotion Catholics have for Mary, as her motherly nature seems much more softer, more compassionate and gentler than the masculine nature of a father God who is prone much more to discipline. Even among the Jews, God was always perceived as a Creator, holy, and the source of all wisdom, but never as a fatherly being. Perhaps this may be the reason why in Southern European countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, far more shrines are seen which are devoted to Mary than to Jesus. In Siracusa, at the Italian island of Sicily, there is a massive, wig-wam of a conical church, la Chiesa della Lacrima, which was built around a comparatively tiny ceramic statuette of the Virgin, as a result that while hanging in an ordinary home, the statue began to shed tears, declared as an authentic miracle by the Bishop of Palermo. Photos of the weeping statuette were displayed in the front foyer the last time my wife and I went to visit in 2006.

Interior of the Church of the Nativity, Greek Orthodox chapel

But little, if anything has ever been spoken about the tears Jesus shed in public, first over the fate of Jerusalem, then at the news of the death of Lazarus. This demonstrates that for a grown up man to shed tears in public is fine, sadly contrary to our stoic British culture, which considers such actions as wimpish. But whether Catholic or non-Catholic, maybe we tend to forget that as God formed Eve from a rib bone taken out of Adam, it was also he who created the character typical of females. In other words, God is equally compassionate and has mother-like affection towards the afflicted, and for a helpless state of the human race enslaved to sin. And what a wonderful demonstration of God's love, so shown to a group of shepherds whose fields were just outside Bethlehem.

In those days, shepherds were considered pariahs of society, on the lowest rung of the social ladder. As a result, they were most likely looked down upon and treated with disdain. But they were loyal to their work and fully committed to it, as their sheep were about to give birth to their lambs. As discussed by the elder in our recent church service, with the climate of the Middle East being different from that of the British Isles, the lambing season was more likely in December rather than in March or April as it is here in the UK. Hence being out on the watch at night at that time of the year. When the first lamb was born, it was taken to a nearby manger to be inspected by a priest. If it's found without blemish, then it is allowed to dwell with its mother until Passover, four months later, when the lamb is killed and roasted. Jesus is our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) who was placed in the manger soon after birth, first to be inspected at the Temple (Luke 2:25-35) and then to be sacrificed some thirty years later, on the very same day all the Passover lambs were slain right across Israel.

But while the child lay in the manger, a group of angels held a party within sight of the shepherds, and announced to them that their Messiah had just been born and was lying in the manger. One of the wonders of this story was that the very first people to see the newborn were not the priests, nor the Pharisees, nor even the equivalent of a middle class citizen, but a group of lowly, despised shepherds. When they heard the message, they must have instantly believed in their hearts, because they did not hesitate to go over to the manger in Bethlehem to see the child for themselves, and to leave with their lives changed forever. Were they saved at that instant? Indeed, and the fruit of their salvation was to make the decision to visit the manger.

Bethlehem today, a far cry from "a little town" of the shepherd's era.

There was no hint that they could lose their salvation later in life, as taught today. Those shepherds believed and were regenerated, and basically resumed their living as shepherds. Their status in society may not have changed but their imputation of God's righteousness remains in them forever. What a wonderful demonstration of God's love, which not even the most compassionate mother could match! It s as simple as that. They received a revelation, they believed that revelation and were saved. Exactly the same as Abraham. God told him that he will have children, he believed, and he was acquitted. At present I was told that Jesus Christ was crucified to atone for our sin, was buried, and on the third day rose physically from the grave (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). As a result of this revelation I was saved, saved eternally - and so was you. You were saved by believing a revelation, in this case, the Gospel. It did not involve works, merit, or the need to "hang on" to remain saved. So enough of this Cambridge Don culture spewing garbage as discussed in my last blog!

I have found it a temptation to believe that the shepherds lived in a different location in a very different era to us at present, and they had no Cambridge Dons to pester them about not holding out faithful. But actually, they were not that far from Jerusalem, the heart of Israeli worship, and home to a crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees who I see as the Cambridge Dons of the day. These men weren't ignorant, but highly educated scholars at that time. But they would not have allowed the shepherds to come near them, let alone touch them, for fear of "becoming unclean". Their hope of eternal life was bound up in the future physical resurrection on the last day of human history. But only by observing both the Law and the multitude of customs and traditions they dreamt up and imposed on others. They believed that they were successful in obeying every law and custom, therefore they saw themselves as righteous before God, while all others were in their sins. And for the shepherds? To them there was no hope. The average Jewish citizen would bow to the teachings of the Pharisees over above the testimony of the shepherds, with most likely the poor and the down-and-outs, the outcasts, and the decrepit believing the revelation and rejoicing at the good news.

As discussed already, I live in a land and environment where the preaching and teaching of Cambridge Don will always hold sway over my testimony, teaching or blogging. But by reading the testimony of the shepherds, of Abraham, and even the testimony of the wise men, who saw a bright star and believed in their hearts that a King of Israel was born, I feel confident that I too can approach the Throne of God boldly, now the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. The wise men saw the star and believed, and acted on their believing by undertaking a long journey and bringing gifts. They travelled because they were already saved through faith, and not working hard to hold on to their faith. Furthermore, they were not Jews, but Gentiles - a proof that salvation is open to everyone who believes.

In the little town of Bethlehem Jesus was born to us that Christmas day. Indeed, Christmas is a time for celebration, for thanksgiving, for rejoicing, and for giving each other gifts. A gift is a good symbol of the grace of God. It is given to the one loved without earning it or meriting the gift. The giver of the present gives it to the one loved. But the recipient has to receive it, and not refuse it. Salvation is a free gift given by God to all who will receive it in faith. And the wonder of it is that it is irrespective of who the recipient is. Whether a shepherd, or a wise man, a Pharisee or a Canaanite woman, one who is highly educated such as Paul the Apostle, or a manual worker such as the Apostle John, who was a fisherman, or one born blind who most likely had no higher level of education than a shepherd. The gift of salvation is given to all who will receive it. It is the very best Christmas gift one could ever receive.

I wish all my readers a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year ahead. God bless you.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

One Verse Causes A Riot!

The theatre at the holiday camp was packed. That was the result of having a Bible festival week during school term. With many still at school and at work, there were just not enough punters to fill the Big Top on the edge of the holiday camp. So the theatre became the main venue for the big evening meeting throughout that week in 1994. But instead of entertainers on the stage, there was a group of seated men, one began to stand at the microphone and opened with the text for the evening's preach - Philippians 2:12, or at least one line of that verse, which reads:
Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Full stop.
Then this fellow, who I will refer to as a Cambridge Don, because of his high academic level, began to tear apart the belief of Eternal Security, using this line as proof that anyone believing on Once Saved Always Saved is deceived. Although I use the title Cambridge Don for one person, on the stage that evening there were two speakers, in full agreement with each other, and both I will refer as Cambridge Dons, after a friend of mine and a follower of this blog page once rebuked me for referring to people by their names.
A near riot ensued in the theatre as the result of the sermon. The second speaker made every effort to quell the riot, calming them down to let the chief speaker finish. Afterwards, many in the audience gathered at the stalls outside to receive counselling. Cambridge Don referred to this as a mass repentance, a proof that what he had spoken was from God himself. Rather, it looked to me that they were gathering to have their fears allayed, a guess endorsed by one punter seeking assurance from a staff member that he was once saved always saved.

The result of that evening was a national change of belief and attitude in many churches across Southern England, if not the entire nation itself, discarding any belief in Eternal Security of the Believer to that of Conditional Security, or as I like to call it: Probational Salvation. I myself was rebuked by some in my own church fellowship for "sticking to my guns" and continued to advocate what I believed in. One elderly lady who used to believe in Eternal Security but not any more, stared hard at me and told me not to question such a great man. Not long after that, on one Sunday morning service, our unfortunate pastor delivered a sermon defending Eternal Security before his resignation a few weeks later. After his preach, a friend approached me and related to me of a vision he had during the sermon. He saw daggers come out of the eyes of many in the congregation, all aimed at the speaker. All thanks to a Cambridge Don, because of his vast learning and our national celebrity culture, he had became an icon, on the level of an Old Testament prophet, so I was told at the time.

I'm amazed how such a thing could have such an impact on our churches. All by misinterpreting Scripture. Twisting Scripture? Yes, indeed. By reading Hellfire into the line, Working out your salvation with fear and trembling. But by reading the whole chapter, and especially the verses following, eternal Hell has absolutely nothing to do with it! Hell was nowhere near Paul's mind when he wrote to the Philippian church. Never mind that the line reads, "Working out your salvation" rather than "working for your salvation" - but the matter of semantics can wait for another day. The fact is that a great many passed through a time of unease, followed by a change of mind with the creed. Nobody dares cross the mind of such a great thinker and public speaker. Our national celebrity-honouring culture won't allow for it. But as for me who sees no problem in making such a challenge, I write this blog with emotion, having come across this verse recently misquoted, implying the fires of Hell when no such thing was ever attached to Paul's epistle.

So what was Paul instructing when he wrote the letter? Mainly this: That he was taken in by the grace of God revealed in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how he was overcome with great emotion by such revelation. So powerful was the truth of Christ to him, that his heart was swallowed up in adoration and a love which was powerful enough to overshadow everything else in his life, particularly his social standing as a Pharisee and a son of a Pharisee. Read verses 9-11 of the second chapter, and see for yourself the adoration, love and joy the apostle had for his Lord. This is in utter contrast with the fear of punishment, as Cambridge Don and his ilk would have wanted us all to grasp. Also compare the love Paul had with what John wrote in his first general letter, which reads:

There is no fear in love, But perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
1 John 4:18.

There are many Cambridge Dons who discards this verse as being irrelevant to us because our love for him is not perfect, so we should fear punishment. That is utter tosh! And coming from academic men as well, who should have known better. It's not our love that is perfect, for while at this side of the grave, our inherited sinful nature will make everything else in us less than perfect. Rather, John was referring to God's perfect love. Untainted by any sin, God's love is absolutely perfect and therefore can be both trusted and responded to at the same time. It was God's perfect love shown in the Resurrected Jesus that changed Paul from a persecuting self-righteous Pharisee to a devout loving believer who can't stop delivering praise upon praise Heavenward to his risen Saviour. No fear of punishment there. No implications of Hell and fiery torment there!

Cambridge University

So why did Paul used the words fear and trembling? What are we to be afraid of? Ending up in Hell, as these guys imply? Or maybe the chance possibility of dishonouring Christ before other men? Immediately after sending up praise to his Saviour, Paul then exhorts the church at Philippi to have the same attitude, the same love, and the same devotion to the Lord as he had. And the reason behind this was not only for their own well being, but also for the well being of others, especially unbelievers. They were to shine like bright stars for the benefit of others, in direct reference to Matthew 5:16:

In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

How does sinful men praise their Father in heaven? Or more precisely, as the KJV puts it, to glorify their Father in heaven? It is impossible for the natural man to glorify God, because of the presence of sin. However, there is one way that would bring glory, and that is for the sinner to believe in the risen Jesus as Saviour. From that moment on, he receives full acquittal from all his sins, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed on him, making him as righteous in God's sight as Jesus was. Nothing less can bring such glory to the Father than a conversion from sinner to saint.

To further this purpose, Paul wrote this to Titus:

This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.
Titus 3:8.

So this looks to me that "everyone" means what it says, and not restricted to fellow believers or church members. If by keeping in line with the above Scriptures, what Paul wrote to Timothy may not be referring to being saved from Hell, but saved from having the name of Christ fall into disrepute among men, especially unbelievers:

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrines closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 4:15-16.

Cambridge Dons love to use such proof that having our salvation hanging in the balance is the best reason for good performance motivated by fear of punishment. But that kind of thinking arose by reading "saved from Hell" into these verses. They are nothing of the kind, as I have emphasised, this word "save" has several meanings - our eternity being one of them. But not in this case. Rather, Paul was encouraging Timothy and his listeners to keep their good reputation intact, to save themselves from disrepute by unbelievers surrounding them. That was the point of the whole of both letters the apostle wrote to Timothy. As Timothy was a leader of a church, or even a group of churches, his performance had to be extra immaculate because the world was watching him. And by remaining blameless in their sight greatly enhances soul winning, with people turning to Christ for salvation and glorifying God.

The letter written by James backs this up. The second chapter brings this across very clearly. After accusing his Jewish readers of arrogance and showing favouritism, he then points out that despite their quest for righteousness, they were guilty of murder. He then goes on to explain that if they keep the Law but stumble at just one point, they are guilty of breaking all the Law (James 2:10.) From verse 14, the apostle discusses general hospitality shown to someone less well off or in dire straits. If the believer simply says, "Keep warm and well fed," but gives nothing to make these possible, then where is the virtue? Will his lack of good works save him?

Here we go again. The Cambridge Don crowd will read Heaven and Hell into the script because of the words "Will his faith save him?" (James 2:14) - even if the verse had nothing to do with eternal salvation. But James was talking about the danger of disrepute from other men especially by the poor man mentioned. What would the poor man think of the believer's faith if the latter had a heart without pity? If salvation was involved after all, then I can assure that the poor man will not turn to Christ if this faith in Christ was a cold, merciless profession. He'll go away believing that this Jesus Christ was a sham after all, an impostor. Very much like the situation in churches at present. But if James was referring to the believer's faith, it was his reputation in dispute, not his salvation.

And so I can go on. A genuine believer will be seen by God as righteous as Jesus Christ himself, because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed upon him from Heaven. But other men cannot see into his heart, therefore the only way he can show his faith is by works. Or else he falls into disrepute and publicly dishonours God. And that is what this "trembling and fear" of Philippians 2:12 is all about. The danger of bringing the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God into disgrace in front of the watching world.

As I write this, I am aware that in a way, I'm throwing down the gauntlet in front of any Cambridge Don, regardless of who he is. Take that 1994 Bible festival. What was the end result of such preaching? Did the entire audience shout their praises to God from the heart? Were they edified in their faith and beliefs? Did they share the same feeling of exultation as the apostle felt? Has a greater love for each other well out like living waters from these people? Rather, a riot nearly took place, and it would have done had not another Cambridge Don elder stood up to calm them down. Fear of punishment took hold. People went for counselling afterwards to have their fears calmed. They became critical towards those who stuck to their guns in believing Eternal Security. Surely, something was seriously wrong.

Yet who am I to say those sort of things? I am not a Cambridge Don, whether I believe in Eternal Security or not. I have never seen the inside of a University, any University let alone Cambridge. So because of this, it will be obvious that most would disregard the contents of this blog in favour of the other. It looks to me to be a tragedy that I happen to live in a land where celebrity culture has such a firm hold. The majority would flock to listen to someone very educated in Theology to bring them down into a state of panic, rather than pay heed to someone who might have a chance of holding and advocating the truth of Scripture and therefore edify. Who am I? A nobody really. At least I never had any opportunity to preach publicly to a large audience. But Paul the apostle might, just might, have a sliver of sympathy or compassion for the likes of me. How come?

By reading what he says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, quite a chunk of Scripture used to forward his point that God chose the foolish to shame the wise, the lowly to nullify those that are high, the weak to shame the strong - all to demonstrate the power of God to confound the wisdom of the wise. And in the forty-plus years of the life as a believer, I don't think I have ever listened to a sermon taken from this passage of the Bible, although the pastor of the previous church I attended in the 1980s mentioned from time to time that secular education was not the be all and end all in a Christian's walk with God. But I wonder whether the congregation at the time, with a large percentage being graduates fresh out of college, had really bought what the pastor said on those occasions.

We live in a country where culture is dominated by celebrity honouring, if not worship. This means that a theologian who had graduated at Oxford or Cambridge will always hold sway over someone who hadn't. Let's thank the Lord for his goodness and mercy, pouring oil over troubled waters and calming them.

Rant over.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

A Common Misunderstanding (Bible study)

Last week I detailed Abraham's character, and proving from the Bible that despite the patriarch's fear of the future, his cowardly attitude over his wife, and his inability to trust other people, God chose him to be the father of a special nation from which a Saviour was to arise to reconcile a fallen world to himself. There was a point in time when the Lord made a promise that even in his old age, a son would be born from his loins. Abraham believed this revelation in his heart, and as a result, he was fully acquitted from all his sins, and became known as the father of faith (Genesis 15:6). In both the Old and New Testaments and therefore after the patriarch's death, God has referred to himself in the present tense as the God of Abraham, indicating that he was conscious in eternity, long after his bones were buried in the Cave of Machpelah (Exodus 3:6, Mark 12:26-27).

Site of the Cave of Machpelah, Hebron
Whether Abraham believed it or not, by reading the narration, I am convinced of his eternal security in Christ. The fact was still true, even if the great patriarch did not realise it. I thank God that his gift of eternal life is independent of our thoughts, motives, and feelings! But what I have seen arising within the last couple of decades is the idea that a believer can lose his salvation if he either fails to hold faithful, or to allow his sins to stack up without confessing - a central tenet of the Roman Catholic faith. That is why in this follow-up blog from last week's, which can be classed as a Bible study topic, I hope to both bring such glory to God and to edify as well, if the Lord grants such a privilege.

After Abraham was justified by faith, there was no hint that he had lost his salvation, or even suffered a temporary relapse into his former lost state. Yet he was so fearful for his life, after God had given him his promise, that he virtually disowned his wife. And he did that twice, at least. If there was an opportunity for Abraham to fall away, surely those two occasions would have been them. But God, in his faithfulness in his promise, spoke both to the Egyptian Pharaoh and later, the King of Gerah, to return Sarah to her husband. The two rulers both then rebuked Abraham over his mistrust, but no rebuke, as far as I know, from Heaven. Now if it is possible for us to lose our salvation over a similar incident of faithlessness, wouldn't this make the Lord to be grossly unfair? But those who advocate a conditional security can point out at least two contrasting set of verses which gives the Bible a sense of inconsistency:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and the follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and my Father are one.
John 10:27-30.

It is impossible for those who had once been enlightened, who has tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
Hebrews 6:4-6.

Seeing such inconsistency, advocates of Conditional Security has brought out a theory that yes, once saved, nobody can take your salvation away from you, no matter how hard they try. But you are still free to just walk away from the eternal life God has given you, and perish forever. And such advocates has quoted Hebrews 6:4-6 as classic proof text to support their teachings. So why not delve into the Old Testament book of Leviticus to grasp what was really in the author's mind when he wrote that?

Leviticus opens with the tabernacle complete but not yet in use. So God gives to Moses exact and specific directions for its use, and who will be staffing it. Only the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, were allowed to minister to Israel at the Tabernacle. Every Israelite who wants to come into God's presence must never arrive empty-handed. Instead he must bring a male goat for a sin offering, a calf and a lamb for a burnt offering, an ox and a ram for a peace offering, along with a grain offering mixed with oil (Leviticus 9:3-4). The priest must then kill each beast according to the type of sacrifice, their fat burned on the altar, and their blood splashed on all four sides of the altar. Consequences for not obeying the regulations, or overstepping the mark, as was the case of Aaron's two sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10) resulted in instant death, as was the case of anyone who entered the inner sanctuary without authority, whether a priest or ordinary citizen.

Reconstructed  Jewish Tabernacle, Israel

According to the narration, Nadab and Abihu's intentions in offering fire in censors to the Lord were good. But neither his father or brothers were allowed to mourn. Despite their good motives, the incident had brought out the seriousness of sin. Simply put, it is impossible to come into God's presence without the shedding of blood, and even then, the blood must be shed in a specific way.

The Jews have kept these regulations right up to the time of Christ, but the system was a failure. Those sacrifices only atoned for unintentional sins; deliberate sins such as blasphemy, murder and adultery, as well as Sabbath-breaking (Numbers 15:32-36), and rebellion (Numbers 16) were punishable by death, normally through stoning. So after the sacrifice was completed, the one who offered was forgiven - until he sins again, and bring forth five more beasts to make a fresh atonement. This was a classic case of only past sins forgiven - a fresh sacrifice had to be made every time a person wanted to consult with his God. If the system of only past sins being forgiven had proved a failure, it looks to me to be tragic that the average Roman Catholic must attend Mass regularly to partake in a bloodless sacrifice offered by the priest, from which advocates of Conditional Security had borrowed the same soteriological idea.

When the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross, the curtain which separated the inner sanctuary of the Temple from the outer one was torn in two from top to bottom, indicating a divine act. From then on, anyone can approach the throne of God without an animal sacrifice and live, and not die as a result. The sacrifice of Christ has paid for all of the sins one has, and would ever commit. So to return to offering sacrifices at the Temple after the Resurrection was a denial of the efficiency of the Atonement made by the Lord. In short, a return to Temple ordinances was denying the Lord.

As before the cross, the Holy Spirit can only reside temporally in a believer, which necessity of full acquittal was required, as was the case of Abraham, Moses, Aaron, King David, etc. But after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit abides in the believer forever, making him holy. And that is the true definition of holiness - the presence of God, as was the case of an area of ground where Moses stood at the burning bush. God ordered Moses to take off his sandals because the ground he was standing on was holy ground (Exodus 3:5). When a group of believers gathers together, the Holy Spirit dwells not only in them but also among them, influencing any unbeliever who walks in. We can read about this in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 -

But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"

Here without doubt the unbeliever became a partaker of the Holy Spirit, even in his unconverted state. But supposing that this unbeliever was a Jew who had walked in, but instead of believing in his heart that this Jesus is the promised Messiah who died to atone for him, ending all Temple sacrifices and ordinances, and rose physically from the dead, he shook his head, muttered something about "Gentile hysteria", walks out and returns to his Temple ordinances. The chance of coming to repentance becomes impossible due to a hardening of his heart. This is exactly what Hebrews 6:4-6 is all about. It was never about a believer falling away and losing his salvation, as Conditional Security advocates insist, but an unbeliever turning away after being brought to the gates of Heaven by the Holy Spirit. And that in particular among the Jews, to whom this letter was addressed.

A believer is made holy through the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. According to John 14:15-17, the Holy Spirit will abide in the believer forever. This means that if the believer falls away, and goes to Hell, the Holy Spirit will go to Hell in him. The very foolishness of this confirms the truth of Eternal Security.

Holiness is about having the Spirit of Christ dwelling in you, and shining out by showing the love of Christ to another person, especially a fellow believer. That is what walking in faith is all about. Love. As in 1 Corinthians 13. By loving that person or group of people in the same way Christ would have loved them fulfils the entire Law. The one who loves would not want to steal, hurt, kill, or falsely accuse, or even covet his possessions, and would respect the wife as her husband's and not touch her. At the same time he would love God with all his mind, heart, soul, and strength. But these things takes time for the Christian. When he sins, the Blood of Jesus had already atoned for him, but it's good for him to agree with God that he wasn't following the lead of the Spirit. That is what confession to God is all about - simply to agree with him.

I have written all this because of the peeve in watching fellow believers living under the Law, as this is the result of Conditional Security - living under the Law. That is, if I allow my sins to stack up unconfessed, or turn away from the faith, I perish. And that despite that if I keep the Law but stumble at just one point, I become guilty of all (James 2:10). And I have found that those believing in Conditional Security (or as I like to call it: Probational Salvation) tend to be less loving, more judgemental and critical, and generally weary towards those who disagree with them. So according to my 40 + years of being a believer myself, having being snapped at by those who thinks they must "hold on". But despite our human frailty (and those who believe in Eternal Security have their weaknesses too) - my desire is to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, and whenever I have to make a decision, or how I should respond to a given situation, I ask myself: How would Jesus have dealt with this?

It's a good way of living a holy life.