Stopping the Pendulum

Sometimes when I think of issues of error, I imagine a pendulum. What I mean is that there is often an overreaction to error that leads to a contrasting overreaction.

For example, imagine a group comes to a conclusion that their services of worship lack zeal and joy; they are too formal and stiff. What will the reaction be? Often, the response will be to throw off reverence and swing dramatically too far toward a service that is chaotic. Later, perhaps years later, that same group will recognize the disorder and chaos in their services and strive for reverence. But, in doing so, this group might in fac, sap the joy and zeal from the services. The pendulum swings.

Or, take as another example the issue of eschatology. For a time, a church might avoid all discussion of end times theology. Suddenly, the leaders recognize that they have been neglecting this doctrine. The swinging pendulum then leads to a group, if they are not wise, talking end-times non-stop so much so that the focus seems to be totally on the return of Jesus with little focus on living in faithfulness and hope in the present. Then, if the group corrects its course, it may again find itself putting the topic of eschatology away too much and acting as though prophecy simply is not a part of the New Testament.

The picture of a swinging pendulum is one that comes into my mind when I think of issues relating to legalism, especially the moralistic side of legalism. How does the Christian respond to the commands of God? We know God’s word is good. We know that his law is perfect, and his commands are always, absolutely right. But we probably have been in places where a focus on the commands of God has led to a moralistic religion.

I certainly have been among believers who focused so much on rules that they became quite similar to the Pharisees. These folks took simple commands of God and expanded them well beyond biblical intent to prescribe a particular code of conduct for believers that could not be found in the word. You will find such things in commands that appear arbitrary among groups—don’t play cards, don’t listen to music with a syncopated rhythm, don’t ever touch alcohol, here is the dress code for all people at all times, etc.

But what happens if we see a pendulum swing away from such moralism? We need to see that swing stop before it goes too far. Otherwise we end up with antinomianism, a throwing off of all law or commands. You will see this in groups that become so radically grace focused that they are unwilling to call anything sin. You see it in groups that so revel in being “real” and being “authentic” that they refuse to speak out against the actions of anyone in their group for fear that they will come off as not gracious, the only sin they seem to continue to acknowledge. You will see it in groups who claim to be Christians, but who completely ignore the word of God when it comes to social issues or modern morality.

How do we avoid a dangerous pendulum swing between legalism and lawlessness? The answer is in the word. Love the word.

Psalm 119:20, 24

20 My soul is consumed with longing
for your rules at all times.
24 Your testimonies are my delight;
they are my counselors.

Look here at how David speaks of God’s law, his rules. He longs for the law of God. He finds the law and testimony of God his delight. There is a genuine love of the word of God—yes, the rules and commands of God—that is present in the heart of a genuinely godly person.

So, if your pendulum is swinging away from Scripture, there is a big problem. If you look at the commands of the word as things about which to be embarrassed, you are headed toward lawlessness. If you see what God says about our lives, our marriages, our sexuality, our finances, our self-control, our eternities and you find it off-putting, you must recognize that there is a problem with your love of the Lord.

But how do we avoid a pendulum swing toward legalism? This is actually simple: love the word. When you genuinely love the word of God, you do not find any reason to think you need to improve upon it. You see God’s affirmation of modesty and his prohibitions against immorality, and you will govern how you dress and behave by that word. You will see God’s word speaking out against drunkenness, and you, when you are of age, will make your own decisions about whether or not drinking at all is wise for you. You will see God’s word speaking about the church being full of reverence, full of joy, living as a family and a body, and you will develop life in accord with biblical commands. As you love the word, you will watch the word counsel you to seek the counsel of other lovers of the word in your local church to help you make word-centered, godly decisions. The more you genuinely love the word, the more you let the word speak, the more that the word alone is your final standard, the more you will avoid both errors of moralism and legalism.

Love the word. Love the word so much that you deeply desire to obey the word. Love the word so much that you do not in any way want to add to it to try to improve it. Stop the pendulum from swinging toward moralism or toward antinomianism, toward legalism or lawlessness, by loving the word of God, all of it.

A Lesson in a Dull Chapter

In Nehemiah 3, we have recorded for us a list of those who began work on repairing the walls of Jerusalem in around 444 BC. The chapter is 32 verses that basically tell who did the repairing and where they repaired. Sounds like dull stuff, and in fact it often is. But there are some things that jump out if we will take note.

For example, in verse 5, we see that a certain group of people worked on a section of the wall, but their nobles “would not stoop to serve their Lord.” Imagine that. In the first 4 verses, we see the priests working on the walls. We see folks from other cities coming to repair. But the nobles of this group were too good to do manual labor for the Lord.

In verse 8, we see two groups repairing the wall who were quite different. These who worked on the wall were, by trade, goldsmiths and perfumers. Thus, working stone was not their forte. However, they saw the work, it needed to be done, and so they jumped in.

In verse 9, we see a ruler of half the district of Jerusalem working on the wall. So, people with power still got into the act.

Similarly, verse 12 tells us, “Next to him Shallum the son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, repaired, he and his daughters.” This is cool. A man who was important politically went to work. And his daughters joined him.

Verse 17 points out that Levites worked on repairing. Thus, the religious folks were part of the process. They did not wait for others to do the work while they watched.

In verse 23, we see men repairing wall near their own houses.

And as you look through the chapter, you will see places where people seem to have been included in working in other sections as well. So, people finished the work in one area, and then they jumped over to another place to keep it going.

What do we do with a chapter like this? We remember that the Lord uses his people, people of all social ranks and skill levels, to accomplish his task. None of us should ever think we are too good to serve the Lord in a simple way. All of us should be willing to see needs and meet needs when we see them. And we should expect that God does great work through his people all working together.

No, I don’t think we need to over-interpret the walls of Jerusalem. This was a city that God restored to his people and it needed defenses. Some people worked. Some people would not. That is just human behavior at is most normal. But the ones who honored the Lord got to work and saw the work finished. This is to the glory of God.

Where do you see a need for work in your church? I’m not here thinking about building maintenance, though that might be a need. Where do you see people in need of fellowship? Where do you see hurting people in need of comfort? Where do you see people with physical or financial needs? Where do you see people in need of someone to come alongside them and walk them out of a sin issue toward righteousness? Do you see a need for folks to care for children? Do you see a need for someone to disciple a student? Do you see a single person who needs help with basic life skills? Do you see a marriage that could use a mentoring couple? There is work to be done, and we need all hands on deck. May we all be a part of God building his church for his glory.

Do We Worship the Same God?

How many times have you heard differences between religions shrugged off by people declaring that, after all, we all worship the same God? I recall that phrase being significantly present after 9-11 as anger toward Islam grew. I also recall multiple conversations I have had with Jehovah’s Witnesses in which the person at my door worked to make sure I knew that we might differ on a couple of things, but we worship the same deity.

But do we? Do we really worship the same deity? Do Christians and Muslims or Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christians and adherents of other religions actually worship the same person? No, we do not. Though it is not popular to point out, we do not worship God, the same God, just in different ways. God has revealed himself in Scripture. He has identified himself as the one God, the triune God, the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three in one. If someone says that they worship the same God as Christians, but then they redefine God as not triune or define Jesus as a god rather than God in the flesh, we are not worshipping the same God.

Imagine that you and I are talking, and we have a conversation about our favorite movie. You tell me that your favorite film of all time is “Rocky.” I respond to you with a big grin and say that I really like “Rocky” also. Then I go on to tell you that my favorite part of that movie is when the main character has his leg swept, it looks like the bad guys are going to win, and then Mr. Miyagi gets him back out there to win the tournament. Would you agree that we have the same favorite movie?

If you know your movies at all, you will know that I was talking about “The Karate Kid,” not “Rocky.” Yes, both movies have something to do with fighting. Both have an underdog accomplishing something cool against tough opponents. But these are not the same movie. And no matter how much I want to say to you that we are talking about the same movie, we are not.

If that does not ring any bells for you, try this. If you and I talk about our favorite foods, and we both agree that we love burritos, we might think we have something in common. But if you define a burrito as long pasta noodles on a plate with red sauce and meat balls, we are not talking about the same thing. Perhaps we are both talking about food, but not the same food.

I understand that those who claim that Christians and people from other religions worship the same God often do so out of a desire for peace. In many ways I agree with the motivation. There is no room for violence or cruelty to one another because we disagree about religion. I would not at all support people being nasty to their Muslim neighbors because of the actions of other Muslims. There is no justice in punishing your neighbor because someone else of their religion did something evil. Nor is there value in someone punishing a neighboring Christian because of the nasty attitudes of others who claim Christ. But it is dishonest to say that we have no differences of substance.

What made me think of all this? Interestingly—to me at least—it was Ezra chapter 4. As the priest, Ezra, records the history of the people of Judah returning to their land after their exile in Babylon, he tells of the reestablishing of Israelite worship. But Samaritans who had settled the land wanted to participate, claiming to worship the Lord just as did the people of Judah.

Ezra 4:1-6 – 1 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” 4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build 5 and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. 6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.

When the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, they carried off many from the land. Then the king of Assyria returned some from that kingdom and forced them to inter-marry with people of other lands in order to create a new ethnic people. In that process, this mingled people also intermingled religious beliefs and practices. Thus, the people of Judah were correct in saying that these people had nothing to do with the house of the Lord or his worship. Even if the people in the land said they had been sacrificing to the Lord for years, they were wrong, they had not.

Take note, by the way, of the responses of the people who were enemies of the Jews. They did not like being told that they were not worshipping the Lord. They argued. Then they began to try to discourage the worship of the Jews. Finally, the opponents of Israel went to the government to try to put a stop to the religious practices of the Jews. The Samaritans were making it clear that if the Jews would not declare the Samaritan religion the same as the religion of Israel, the king should not allow them to worship at all. The Samaritans saw it as dangerous for a people to have a faith that is exclusive.

Christians, there is something here for us. We worship the God of the Bible. We worship Jesus as God the Son. We worship the one, true, God who is triune—Father, Son, and Spirit. We do not assume that others should be forced to agree that we are correct. But we do agree with the word of God that there is no God other than the Lord. WE agree with Jesus that there is no way for anyone to come to the Lord except through him. We agree with the apostles that there is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved except for the name of Jesus. We agree with the reformers that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone as revealed in the Scripture alone.

And because we believe the Bible, we have to say,” No,” when someone claims they worship the same God we do and then defines God differently than does the word. This will not be popular. It may bring persecution. It may lead to the government attempting to prevent us from continuing to worship biblically. But it is true.

Yes, there is room for us to see people as believers who differ on significant issues with you. You might disagree on baptism or church government and be a solid believer in the same God as all genuine Christians. But if you believe that God is not triune, not eternal, not holy, you and I do not worship the same God. If you do not believe Jesus is God, we do not worship the same God. If you believe that the Father is the Son in a different form, we do not worship the same God. If you believe that the God of the Bible is also the deity of some other religion under a different name, we do not worship the same God.

God’s word tells us who God is. We cannot say that a being who is not the Lord as revealed in the word is the same as the Lord who is revealed in the word. Rocky is not Daniel LaRusso. A burrito is not a plate of spaghetti. And a deity that is not the triune God of the Bible is not the same God that I worship.

Church Discipline Has More than One Goal

It seems that we discuss church discipline more commonly today than we did a few decades ago in the American church. This, of course, is a good thing. After all, it has been said that a true church is a body where the word is preached, the sacraments are administered, and where discipline is applied. And it has also been affirmed that, when discipline departs, so does the church.

If you talk about church discipline, the most common place you will find a person turn in the Bible is Matthew 18, and for good reason. There the Lord Jesus gave us a pattern for discussion inside the church when one member is wronged by another. It is the pattern that most know. WE go talk to the person privately. If they will not repent, we go with witnesses—perhaps church leaders. If they still will not repent, we make their sin known to the body. And if they still will not repent, we treat them as a tax collector or unbeliever. It is a simple and fairly clear process.

But Matthew 18 is not the only passage on church discipline in the Scriptures. A faithful minister will also point the people of God to Galatians 6 which speaks of restoring a wayward brother gently and guarding our own hearts in the process. We will look to 1 Corinthians 5 for an example of strong discipline being affirmed for a man who is unrepentantly sexually immoral. We will turn to 2 Corinthians 2 for a picture of a church being called to forgive and restore a repentant sinner. And, as Paul closes 2 Corinthians, we see a couple of lines that must remind us of the goal of church discipline. Yes, we do all we do for the glory of God. Yes, we battle for the purity of the church and the honor of Christ. But we also do church discipline for the sake of restoring fallen brothers and sisters in Christ.

2 Corinthians 13 :9, 11 – 9 For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for…. 11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

In a letter that includes a strong focus on the issues relating to church discipline among other things, as Paul wraps up, twice he points out that his heart, his aim, his goal is restoration. Paul says that he prays to see the fallen restored, and he wants the church to make restoration her aim as well.

When you consider church discipline, then, remember that restoration is central. We do not take delight in dropping the hammer on somebody who is failing in their Christian walk. Instead, we call on those who are wayward to return. We must call firmly, as continuing in sin may well be a sign that a person is not at all saved. But we call lovingly, because we know that God can bring a sinner back from the brink of destruction. Our goal is not to win a battle. Our goal is to win a brother.

Does He or Doesn’t He?

Sometimes, when we read something in Scripture, we need to be sure that we are really willing to consider what its truth means. It is one thing to read a psalm and hear the psalmist speak of the need for clean hands and a pure heart if you are to ascend the hill of the Lord, but when sincerely considered, that concept shows us that we cannot approach God without righteousness given to us as a gift. When Jesus says he is the only way to God in John 14:6, that means something significant for the entire human race.

In Psalm 115, we see another claim of the Lord’s that we must consider.

Psalm 115:3

Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.

This little verse is not hard to understand or interpret. God is in the heavens. He is not a statue on earth. He is not confined to the borders of any land. He is the God who looks over the whole globe. He is omnipresent.

But the second line is the one we need to think about. The Bible says of the Lord, “He does all that he pleases.” This is the line that I want to ask, “Does he or doesn’t he?” Is this true? If it is—and of course it is—then we must know something about the Lord.

God does all that he pleases. This means that God is never thwarted. God is never defeated. God is never on his throne wishing something would take place but incapable of making it take place. There is no good that God is telling us that he wishes he could pull off were he not confined. There is no evil that God wishes he could prevent if it were not for some power or some restriction he faces. God does all that he pleases.

The question for us is, “Does he, or doesn’t he?” If God does all that he pleases, you and I must grasp that God is truly sovereign. That raises problems for us, of course. It reminds us that we must learn to accept the decisions, judgments, and ways of the Lord. God’s ways are not our ways. He does not run the universe by our standards. He will not do all that we please. And we have no way of knowing what we would do in the Lord’s position, as we lack his power, his knowledge, and his perfection.

But, Christians, if you grasp that God does all that he pleases, then you can submit to him in trust. God is not defeated. He has not lost control of the world. He has not found himself incapable of fixing a government or a broken-down vehicle. God is God. God does what God pleases. God will not be defeated. And this should lead us to hope, to surrender, and to worship.

What We Renounce

I recently wrote a post on a dangerous pragmatism that tempts believers. Often with good motives—a desire for the glory of God, the salvation of the lost, or the growth of the church—believers will face the temptation to compromise. Some of these compromises feel small. Some are obviously large. But no generation of Christians has ever been without the temptation to change this or that to achieve greater success or an easier life.

So, when I read Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 4, I found myself very glad to see the clear, biblical affirmation of a commitment to avoid things that are easy for us to give in to.

2 Corinthians 4:2-3 – 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.

Paul would not practice underhanded ways. Paul would not, ever, allow himself to tamper with Scripture. This must be the attitude and heart of any faithful believer.

Are we tempted to tamper with Scripture? Of course we are. Some are tempted to deny the Bible’s infallibility and inerrancy. Some believe that the Bible is accurate to its day, but no longer applicable in its commands as we live in a more enlightened era. Some agree with Scripture completely, but wish to hide from view certain passages that we find embarrassing in a culture that would be offended by them.

What about practicing cunning? How much of that is going on? I think you need only look from organization to organization with the name “church” to see. There are all sorts of strategies being employed to get people to hear a message. Some strategies are not problems. Churches that attempt to reach out in honesty and kindness in their towns are not compromising anything. But what about those who use bait-and-switch tactics to attempt to sneak a message in on folks? Is there any evidence in Scripture of a Christian surprising someone with an unexpected gospel presentation? Certainly not. Nor is there any biblical pattern of Christians pretending to be interested in one area only to then shift and become gospel focused at a later time. This is just not how honest Christians operate. We need not be underhanded. We most certainly are not asked to be tricky. We are to be clear, plain, bold, and honest.

Like Paul, may we learn to be committed to the open proclamation of the gospel and the word of God. May we commend ourselves and our message with no form of deception whatsoever. May we trust that some will receive that message because of the working of God on the hearts of the elect. May we understand that those who are hostile to the clear gospel are not put off by our lack of trickery, but by their sin nature and the blinding influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil. May we be able to say that we renounce all that is underhanded out of a clear love of and trust in the Lord and his word.

A Key to Fearing God

Christians, if we have been biblically taught, we know that we are supposed to be God-fearers. But we do struggle to know what that looks like. I have suggested in the past that fearing God for the believer is different than fearing God as a non-believer. We do not desire to run and hide from the Lord. We are not those who cry out to the mountains to fall on us and cover us from the sight of the Lord. While we are in awe of the Lord and we know that we cannot stand before him without his covering of grace, our fear of the Lord leads us to fall to our knees and cry, “Holy!”

What does fearing God look like in a Christian’s daily life? What will it change? I thought of those questions while reading through Psalm 112. Look at the parallel of the first verse, and see what the psalmist equates with fearing God.

Psalm 112:1

Praise the Lord!
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who greatly delights in his commandments!

How do we know who fears the Lord? The man fears God who greatly delights in God’s commandments. This is evidence of being a God-fearer.

How do you feel about the commandments of God? Are you one who constantly points out the fact that following God is not about rules and commandments? Are you one who looks for the minimum of what you might call mere Christianity? Or, as you know God, do you delight in his commands, all of them? Are you embarrassed by God’s standards when you talk with the lost? Do you wish you could hide God’s word from them? Or do you see that the word of God is perfect, his laws glorious? No, I’m not talking about any form of legalism here. But I am suggesting that a God-fearer loves even the commands of God.

A true God-fearer delights in God’s commandments. That means that, as we know and love the Lord, as we properly reverence and honor the Lord, we will also love his ways. God commanded nothing in history that was not perfect. If we allow ourselves to be ashamed of the commands of God, we show that we do not yet properly fear God. God’s rules for life are worth more than thousands of gold and silver pieces. God’s word is perfect, reviving our souls. God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. God’s word is precious in every way. And God’s standards, even those most hated and despised by the world around us, should bring us delight.

Christian, fear God. How? Delight in the word of God. Delight in the ways of God. Delight in the commands of God. And any time you feel yourself wanting to shrink back from the word of God, remember that God is holy, and God-fearers delight in his word and his ways.