The Tougher Side of True Discipleship

The great Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones, in his devotional work, Growing Spiritually, bluntly criticized the view that, as Christians we can expect to gain only partial victory over sin. According to this bias, life remains a cyclical struggle of temptation, sin, confession, and forgiveness. Forgiveness, yes, but always little more than sin and guilt. We should not expect much more.   

To this pessimism, Brother Stanley retorts, "Only a forgiven sinner? The whole thing leaves you with your eyes in the wrong direction--on your sinful self, instead of upon the saving work of Christ." He speaks to what scholars of John Wesley, in whose legacy Jones operated, call the "optimism of grace." Not because of any strength inherent to our own natures do we have hope of full salvation (the going on to full-grown, victorious, Christian adulthood), but because God has freely given us grace to respond faithfully--moment by moment--in loving obedience.

To be sure, life is...

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The Life He Gives Us

We stand on the edge of the end of Christmastide, with Epiphany coming in a couple of days (January 6). Once more, before this season ends, let us think about the meaning of Christmas. It commemorates the Incarnation of the Word of God. God the Son takes on human nature to save us. 

Just how does he save us? And what does "save" mean? The answer to the first question is often lodged in Jesus' death, as well it should be. He saves us by dying for our sins. Yes and amen. But there is oh so much more to the salvation story than the cross, as central and life-altering as it is. Talk of Jesus' saving death (to move to our second question) relates very strongly to forgiveness and restoration to relationship with the Father, or a change in status. This mighty act of divine mercy in Christ is of central importance. It is essential to understanding what becoming a Christian involves.

But again, there is more. And it is that "more" that I want us to ponder. We'll do so by way of...

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Celebrating Christmas, All of It, with Full Conviction

In the opening verses of Luke's gospel, Luke tells Theophilus his reason for writing: "So that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (NRSV). As is so often the case with scripture, there is more to this statement than meets the eye. As we race through the final days of Christmas preparations, let us take a few minutes, Mary-like (Luke 2:19), to ponder.

As literal a translation from the Greek as I can make of this Luke 1:4 clause goes something like this: "...in order that, concerning the points on which you have been instructed [catechized], you may know [the truth] with certainty." The Greek word for truth, aletheia, does not appear in the text, but it is clearly implied. The word for instruction or instructed, katekethe, gives us our word, catechesis. Having this additional color to the bare statement helps us get the sense that Luke writes this gospel to help Theophilus - and us - feel the confidence of knowing that we have been...

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Giving Thanks as a Means of Grace

The Thanksgiving holiday is upon us. Let's think about the practice of giving thanks as a means of grace.

First, what do I mean by "grace?" As you may have seen or heard me say elsewhere, grace is the activity of the Holy Spirit working in our lives, through our thoughts, desires, attitudes and actions. Grace for the Christian enables us to move in the direction of Christlikeness, of spiritual maturity. Many of us think of grace mainly in terms of God's gift or divine favor, which is true. But there is more to grace. It is God working in us. 

Second, what do I mean by "means?" Think of ends and means. The end of something is its goal. The means include steps taken toward the goal, what one does and experiences that contributes to movement in the direction of realizing the goal.

In this light, giving thanks is certainly a means of grace. 1 Thessalonians 5:16,18 gets at the point: "Rejoice always...give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus...

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What Do You Treasure?

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," Jesus told his hearers (Matthew 6:21). These words are deceptively profound. They speak to something that goes to the very core of scriptural Christianity, but something that also goes against our habits of mind.

It's easy to think of treasure as just having to do with material resources and the context seems to support this conclusion. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says, "You cannot serve God and wealth," and off we go with ethical reflections about money. But money is not Jesus' primary concern. His first concern is the heart. If we don't get squared away on our understanding of the heart, we'll never figure out the money thing. So, as I often encourage, let's back up and go over this ground again.

Notice from other scriptures how characteristically Jesus draws attention back to the heart and away from the topic that started the conversation. To scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem who had questioned his loyalty to Israel's...

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The Irony of "Application"

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Spiritual Maturity Project
The Irony of "Application"
9:37
 

One of the major goals of the Spiritual Maturity Project is to enhance Bible readers' knowledge of scripture and confidence in reading.  To this end, I have created a course in our Foundations series (three courses), to be launched in a few days.  Watch for the announcement.

Becoming fruitful Bible readers faces one major challenge and it reveals an irony.  In our pragmatic culture (generally a good), we have adopted a practice of "application" that, ironically, gets in the way of the goal it seeks to achieve.  

I'll explain what I mean by way of an example.  In Matthew 9:2-8, we find a version of the story about the paralytic whom Jesus heals.  It's controversial because Jesus says to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven," which causes a debate between Jesus and some religious leaders, who think Jesus is committing blasphemy.

Many, many of us have learned to read the Bible with an eye to application.  We want  to know how the passage...

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Sins and Infirmities

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Spiritual Maturity Project
Sins and Infirmities
10:07
 

Isaiah 53:4-5 portrays two aspects of what the Suffering Servant - our Lord, Jesus Christ - has done to our great benefit.  He has "borne our infirmities" and "was wounded for our transgressions."  

Sins and infirmities.  These two categories of human experience pose questions that call for wisdom and discernment.  What counts, in God's eyes, as sin?  (This question has dimensions that resist easy answers.)  What does he regard as infirmities? What does God forgive and what does he heal?  

A first-step answer is pretty straightforward.  "Infirmities" obviously refers to diseases.  This Isaiah passage says, "He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases."  Yes.  True.  Is this the end of the story for understanding infirmities?  No.

The Bible also describes sickness of soul, which overlaps with physical illness but also goes beyond it into thoughts, feelings, and resulting behaviors.  Infirmities...

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Trusting the (Usually) Unseen Hand of God

Uncategorized Aug 19, 2021

There is much to cause worry in the news these days.  This is nothing new, of course, yet that feeling of foreboding, like something is irreversibly wrong, permeates popular consciousness.  Many people, including some expert interpreters of current events, believe that things are spinning closer and closer to out-of-control.  Consider:

  • The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
  • The earthquake in Haiti.  That poor, broken island.
  • Wildfires in California.
  • Critical water shortages on the Colorado River
  • The Delta variant of COVID-19, with all the worrisome implications back in our minds.
  • The continuing political polarization and hostility between "red" and "blue."  

These tragedies are heart-wrenching.  It is a time to reflect on how we, as followers of the Risen King, respond to all the bad news.  

The scriptures show repeatedly that discipleship involves an attitude of relinquishing.  As our technology has gotten more powerful, the...

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Reading the Bible as a Religious Book: What's the Matter?

Uncategorized Jul 29, 2021
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Spiritual Maturity Project
Reading the Bible as a Religious Book: What's the Matter?
9:41
 

In 2 Samuel 3, we find an account of regime change, to use a familiar modern term.  Like virtually any regime change, it is not a pretty story.  Saul's surviving son, Ishbaal, who sits on Israel's throne (Saul and three sons are killed in battle against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 31), as least as nominal king, is assassinated in chapter 4 and David is made king of all Israel in chapter 5.  Throw in the rivalry between Abner (Ishbaal's general who defects to David) and Joab (David's general who kills Abner), and you have a doozy of a Bible story.  

From the standpoint of Christian discipleship, how do read these scriptures?  What spiritual benefit comes through engaging these texts?  Once again, we have a chance to think about how we think and to examine our reading habits so that we can grow in the knowledge and love of God.  As a regular part of the ministry, I stress the critical need for regular Christians to read all of the Bible, not...

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Learning to Trust, Truly

Spiritual Maturity Project
Learning to Trust, Truly
8:10
 

A number of news articles I have read recently refer to studies of the declining mental health of people here in the United States and elsewhere as we slowly emerge from the grip of the pandemic.  One report from the Centers for Disease Control says that as recently as February, 2021, over 40% of adult Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.  This same study, like a number of others I consult, mentions also that the hardest hit among us are our young people age 18-29.  A society's spiritual problems concentrate and become most evident among our young.  Now that is something to worry about. 

These reports prompt me to ask, "How are you doing?" How are you doing?  Honest evaluation, like confession (which this sort of evaluation is), is good for the soul.  

I'm asking a serious question and (perhaps) pleading with us, then, to take stock of our answers to two other related questions, because our honest answers have direct...

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