January 21, 2014

Working with God . . .

Last night’s Bible study was both rich and frustrating. We discussed the importance of salvation by grace alone and how that promotes a desire to love and obey God, to know Him more deeply and to tell others about Him.

However, one person at the study has a stock answer for every question: “Let the Holy Spirit do it.” Instead of being prepared to give an answer to those who ask about our faith (1 Peter 3:15), she insisted that we don’t need to answer anyone; just let God do it.

To me, this seems like avoiding spiritual disciplines and Christian responsibility to share our faith and even to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3) as instructed. My frustration came in not being able to explain that being freely saved does not mean we can then “let God do it all.” Clearly, He gives His people a part in the work He is doing. Otherwise, we could do whatever we please.

This morning’s devotional reading is about idols, not about my frustration. The corresponding Scriptures do not say anything about the connection between faith and works, at least they didn’t seem to at first glance. The first one is about Ezra’s trip from captivity in Babylon back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple of God.

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. (Ezra 8:21–23)

One of my professors has pointed out that the first response of faith is prayer. Because Christians know and trust God, we talk to Him about our situation and our needs. Prayer is a work, a duty, but it is also a delight, an overflow of a trusting heart. We do the work of praying because we believe, yet prayer often requires the sacrifice of time and sweat. It isn’t easy. And even though we trust God for the answers and for help to do the praying, we do not abandon it with the idea that, “I don’t need to pray, let the Holy Spirit do it.”

From today’s readings, another example of faith producing action is the story of Paul talking to the philosophers at Athens. They worshiped “the unknown God” and when Paul saw this, he explained to them who God is and how they could trust Him because of Christ’s death and resurrection. His words had power, for “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” (Acts 17:32)

In last night’s discussion, I posed the question of what do we say to people who do not understand the truth about God and salvation, and was told, “Why say anything? Let the Holy Spirit do it.” Yikes! Had Paul silently walked away, these people would have remained in their ignorance. It is not that the Holy Spirit does it all, but that He used Paul’s lips and obedience to bring truth to these people. As Paul told them . . .

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24–25)

Yet this same God has chosen to use those who believe in Him as instruments for His work, as spokespersons, and as reflections of His glory. He doesn’t need us, but chooses to use us. This is precisely the reason we are not to worship idols: we become unavailable to God. Besides that, whatever we worship, we become. By seeking and serving God, we become like Him.

In the history of Israel, this lesson was repeated many times. The people were told “no other gods” but fell into idolatry many times. He kept calling them back to Himself . . .

And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you. And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:27–29)

Those who found Him also realized that “the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good. There is none like you, O Lord; you are great, and your name is great in might. Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is none like you. They are both stupid and foolish; the instruction of idols is but wood!  . . . the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King.” (Jeremiah 10:3–10)

Worshiping God means trusting Him alone; no idols. But trust also means obedience to His commands and relying on His grace for what is needed to obey. Even Jesus did not throw His Father’s commands back at Him and say, “No, I don’t have to. You do it without me.”

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