February 29, 2012

Imitating Christ does not work

When Jesus Christ came into my life, my sister told me to read the Bible every day (which I’d been doing for years anyway). She said God would speak to me, and when He did, I should write down the verse and my understanding of what He was saying. I accumulated a three-foot stack of journals before using a computer for daily devotional readings and thoughts. 

Now I’m using Logos 4 for devotions, Bible study, and preparing lessons. It has a new feature that allows adding my own files that will be indexed and searchable like the many books already in the program. I’ve decided to do this with my spiritual journals, starting with the computer files. I’m also using speech recognition software to do the hand-written files. I might not live long enough to finish, but reading those old journals is both a blessing and sorrowful.

One thing that stands out is how long it takes me to actually learn something. God teaches it, gives me opportunity to obey, and when I mess up, the cycle starts over again. It has taken forty years to get some truths into my head and showing up in my life. 

I’ve noticed some instances where I’ve absorbed less than correct teaching. This has interfered with deeper realities. Perhaps as a new Christian I would not have “got it” anyway, but I can remember one example. The first time I heard that I was to be like Jesus, I understood that as He is my example and I’m to copy what He does, but this isn’t how it works.

Without a devotional reading in my guide for this Leap Year day, I opened a book on Logos called Our Brilliant Heritage by Oswald Chambers. In the first chapter he uses these verses to begin a wonderful explanation of how it does work.
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31)
Chambers says, “Whenever Paul speaks of sanctification, he speaks of it as an impartation, never as an imitation. Imitation comes in on a different line. Paul does not say, nor does the Spirit of God say anywhere, that after we are born again of the Spirit of God, Jesus Christ is put before us as an example and we make ourselves holy by drawing from Him. Never! Sanctification is Christ formed in us; not the Christ-life, but Christ Himself.”
After many years of trying to imitate Jesus, I now understood that much. My salvation is not by my own effort, nor is my spiritual development. Jesus lives in me and being holy means letting His life become my life. As Chambers says, this is a mystery, hard to explain yet a joyful truth that can be seen in the lives of those who finally “get it.”

Chambers adds this: “In Jesus Christ is the perfection of everything, and the mystery of sanctification is that we may have in Jesus Christ, not the start of holiness, but the holiness of Jesus Christ. All the perfections of Jesus Christ are at our disposal if we have been initiated into the mystery of sanctification. No wonder men cannot explain this mystery for the joy and the rapture and the marvel of it all, and no wonder men see it when it is there, for it works out everywhere.”

Basic to this truth is the fact of sin. It’s root description is that each of us “go our own way” even to trying to work out our salvation in our own way, even after Jesus comes into our lives. Not that we have no role, but the Bible is clear about how this is done.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
God tells me to obey, to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, but He does the work. He gives me the will to obey and the ability. This is His life in me, not mine. In fact, my will and my efforts always interfere with His and with what He wants to do in and through me. My sinful flesh runs contrary to Christ — who lives in me — all the time and in my every effort to become what He wants. Instead of helping Him by my zeal and determination, I get in His way. And like the slaves delivered from Egypt, He lets me wander in the wilderness until I figure it out.

Jesus, if I’ve figured out anything, it is because You have been incredibly patient. I can see that apart from You I am nothing and can do nothing. You are my Savior in salvation and sanctification. I’ve tried to be holy, but the flesh cannot be made holy. Any righteousness that is in me is Your righteousness. It has to be. The rest is merely human foolishness at trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

February 28, 2012

Sorting out values

Randy Alcorn wrote several books about the principle of giving. This principle includes statements such as “you cannot out-give God” and “you cannot take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.” He emphasizes the folly of making worldly possessions our focus because all of them eventually wind up in the dump. 

Paul also had much to say about human value systems. When he wrote Philippians, his focus was on status, popularity, public opinion, and the confidence he once had in his spirituality and religious background. As a follower of Jesus Christ, he gave up all allegiance to those values, even considering them as trash for the dump, because he had a new and far better goal.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:8–14)
Paul once lived a “righteous” life in his own eyes and the eyes of his peers. However, after an encounter with Christ, he realized that all his “goodness” was nothing in the eyes of God. He humbly accepted the righteousness that God gives through faith and began a new life. 

When Paul wrote the above words, he had been following Jesus for many years, but all that time his goal had not changed. He pressed on to be more like Jesus, seeing this as the most important goal and Christ as his most important possession. 

Both Alcorn and Paul had problems and trials. Alcorn tells of being on the wrong side of a lawsuit that threatened his livelihood. Paul wrote Philippians while in jail. Both men realized that an important aspect of being entirely dedicated to serving God, no matter what happened to them. Both understood that knowing Christ means learning how to deal with the past, including mistakes made and other trials outside our control. 

Paul’s life was filled with trouble. He implies that he also made mistakes after being saved and calls himself the chief of sinners. This fits with the experience of all Christians. We make errors in judgment and might even commit sinful acts with far-reaching consequences. Put in Alcorn’s financial terms, we make bad investments and sometimes useless and stupid purchases. Mistakes and stumbling are part of our battle against sin. What we do after we experience these reverses should be distinctly Christian. 

Today’s devotional reading sums up this passage of Scripture with wise counsel about mistakes. It says that I cannot move ahead by simply regretting my irreparable past. All that happens to me makes me who I am, and God wants me to make the best of what I am, not try to cover it over or make excuses for it. 

Neither can I balk at moving ahead by complaining that I blew it, or that am not trained well enough, or that I don’t have the right abilities, or that I don’t have enough money, or live in the right place. What and where I am is God’s providential arrangement — His doing. While I am responsible for my “life’s series of mistakes” and false steps, God’s hand is there. The devotional writer says that the best Christians are not those who makes the fewest false steps, but those who win victories by the “retrieval” of those mistakes, learning from them how to be more like Jesus. 

Alcorn writes about his financial fiasco and how God used it to make him a deeply generous man. Paul writes about his desire for status, outward appearance, and performing perfectly before a critical world and how God used that to teach him the fading value of personal prestige. Like money and possessions, it too will fade away when we leave this place. What is valued by the world around me and what I once valued is of no account. The only thing that will last forever is pressing on toward the goal of being like Jesus.

Lord, I’m thankful that You promise to work all things in my life together toward that goal. Being like Jesus is a worthy goal that will not fade away or wind up in the dump when I die. Instead, that goal will be reached and completely fulfilled when I see You face to face.

February 27, 2012

The Way Out

Imagine being in a burning building, confused by smoke and not knowing the way out. Someone comes up and says, “I’ve worked for six years here in this building. We go up and left. Follow me.”

Right then, another person approaches. He says, “I designed and built this building. The only way out is down and to the right. Follow me.”

Many religious systems claim to be the right one or the only one. Some are classified as a sect that deviates from a more traditional form. These may call themselves Christian but have abandoned traditional Christian beliefs, even the Bible as their final authority. 

I’m not sure about the basis for those exclusive claims. A group comes to mind that claims their founder had a vision. Another is told that their organization provides the only way to God seemingly because their leaders find this helps them have a good hold on their fearful adherents. Whatever the reasons, I’ve always been told to watch out for those religions that claim they are the only true way to God. 

Yet I’ve learned that those who say there are many ways to God are just as dangerous. Even logic says that two opposite views cannot both be correct (unless they come from two blind men both describing what they can touch on the opposite ends of an elephant). Even if they sound good or are obviously faulting, all these claims can be confusing.

From examining the voices out there, my decision about the way to God is not based on any teaching from others or the claims that they might make. I follow Jesus He made the building. He created the universe. He did what no man can do — besides miracles of healing and turning water into wine, He died for the sins of the world, was buried, and after three days rose again. Not only that, it was not His followers but Jesus who made the claim . . .
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Jesus also made promises. One of them is that those who believe would experience conviction of sin, confession, repentance, and then forgiveness, freedom from guilt, and ever-increasing victory over sin. He also said that His followers would receive answers to prayer, peace with God, and fullness of joy.
He kept all those promises giving me reason to doubt that He will keep this one about being the way (not a way) to the Father. 

Christians have been accused of being dogmatically exclusive, yet it isn’t our idea. Jesus made this “no one except” statement. He claimed to be the way, the only way. Yet He made another one that takes the exclusive out of faith in Him. He said,
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. (John 11:25)

Lord, I’ve been particularly amazed this week that You save anyone. We are sinners stumbling around in the smoke of our self-centeredness and sin. By ourselves, there is no way out. Many simple will follow the first person that comes along making a claim that sounds good. Yet like the creator of a burning building, You know more about our need regarding sin than we do, and certainly more about the way out. In fact, You simply invite us to take hold of Your nail-scarred hands and You become the Way for us.

February 26, 2012

God’s Messengers

The word “angel” can also be translated “messenger” and refer to a prophet, ambassador or teacher. However, many biblical references for angels refer to beings sent by God to people who did not have the written Word to guide them. Since Jesus came, God’s use of angels and prophets as messengers has diminished.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1–2)
Yet the Word of God tells us how God spoke to the prophets using angels. This helps me realize that He desires to communicate and is not without the means to do so. The ancients may not have had Bibles, but that did not stop God from speaking to them. 

For instance, the patriarch Jacob was given messages from God. In one, he was told to leave the land where he had met and married and gained much, and go home.
I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred. (Genesis 31:13)
Jacob heard from God. Even though this meant great upheaval for him and his family, he obeyed what God said. While on his journey, he had a visit from angels.
Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim. (Genesis 32:1–2)
Today’s devotional draws from this Old Testament narrative something for God’s people today. It says that we find angels around us also — when we obediently go on the path where God directs. If we go our own way, we may also meet them, but this will be an entirely different encounter, like Balaam who met an angel with a sword in his hand and strong rebuke on his lips.

The messengers of God can bring rebuke, but as those who met Jacob, they can also be “friendly helpers” who are emissaries of God’s love — bringing messages of grace and comfort. The devotional writer warns that if anyone wants to hear from God, His messengers do not haunt the roads that we choose for ourselves, but will meet us on paths of obedience.

Lord, Your people experienced both kinds of messengers. Some brought words of rebuke. Some came with words of comfort, revelation and instruction. When Jesus came, He promised the Holy Spirit to Your people. He fulfills both roles as He uses Your word, along with all sorts of messengers, to rebuke and guide us. I’m thankful that You gave us Your Word as the solid ground for clear communication. Whatever else angels might contribute, You have not left us in a dark silence, but put Your awesome message in a precious Person and into a precious book.

February 25, 2012

God’s Amazing Gentleness

In many cultures, gentleness is not considered a virtue. In the early history of God’s people Israel, being gentle ran contrary to the thinking of the pagan world around them. Many of His people thought the same way. Even David, who was destined to be king and called by God as a man after His own heart, wrote many a personal testimony about the power of God and how He was his source of strength. Yet David recognized something about God that runs contrary to most ideas of what God is like, and even seems contrary to David’s description of His power.
For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God? This God is my strong refuge and has made my way blameless. He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights. He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your gentleness made me great. (2 Samuel 22:32–36)
David sees God as a rock, a strong refuge where he can safely stand. He sees Him as one who forgives sin and guides him in righteous living, for God has made his way blameless. God is his resource and equipper. God has given him speed and security, trained him to fight so that he could bend a bow reinforced with bronze, difficult to draw but a powerful weapon with which to defeat his enemies. 

David also understood that God had given him a shield. This may be a literal shield to save him from enemy attacks, but can also refer to the protection found in having a saving relationship of faith. The shield of salvation protects the entire person from spiritual judgment and destruction. By knowing God had forgiven and saved him from the penalty of sin, David was confident to move ahead with God’s leading. He had no concerns for his own safety or destiny because he knew that God had taken care of him. 

The last phrase is a surprise. All the greatness (increase, abundance, authority, excellence, plenty) that David knew came to him because of God’s gentleness, not His might or power or forcefulness, but through an entirely opposite characteristic of God.

The word means condescension, clemency, humility, meekness. This is a term that shows a side of God that ran contrary to pagan ideas about what a god should be. They wanted power not humility, meanness toward enemies, not meekness. Condescension was the last thing they expected from their gods. But David’s God, and my God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, humbled Himself that we might becomes great.
(Jesus) who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8)
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
The God whose gentleness made David great still does the same for those who are people after His own heart. He builds up all those who know there is no God but the Lord, no rock like Him. 

Lord, this is a grand thought. You, the most powerful Being, are willing to give that strength to those of us who are weak, needing forgiveness and grace. The more helpless we are, the greater Your blessing. The less secure we feel, the more You come to our rescue. Truly, Your gentleness is the most amazing thing about You. Like David, I am in awe of all that You do — certainly because You are strong, but also because You are gentle.