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 Some believe that the Bible is accurate to its day, but no longer applicable in its commands as we live in a more enlightened era.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 Deadly Pragmatism

What is better, to do what is right or to do what works? Do the ends justify the means? Can we compromise formal righteousness for a result that we think is clearly important?

Such questions have been important questions for years in the church. Many people, well-intentioned people, have led many churches to make decisions that turn their churches subtly away from Scripture for the sake of a good cause. They know that there are several things that God intends for the church to accomplish. And, if they misunderstand God’s top priority, they will compromise in one area for the accomplishment of another.

The rise of modern theological liberalism was tied to a desire to see the church avoid a decline. As the world became more skeptical of the miraculous and more enthralled by scientific explanations for all things, teachers began to downplay the miraculous so as not to turn off the modern thinker. Eventually, such pastors and professors began to deny the authority and accuracy of Scripture so as to attempt to keep the church from declining numerically.

Sometimes we are tempted to compromise for a good cause. Typically, one cause for which Christians are willing to compromise is evangelism. Evangelism, of course, is God’s command for the church. We are to go and make disciples of all nations. We are to see people saved, baptized, and taught to obey the commands of the Lord. But when we find that other issues like doctrine impair our ability to share the gospel with a world that hates biblical doctrine, we can be tempted to hide or even ignore that doctrine for the sake of sharing Jesus. Or we can be tempted to shift the focus of the church away from the glory of God and the word of God to focus our resources more firmly on the spreading of the faith.

In modern times, other categories are arising that might lead us to compromise. The desire to see racism eradicated has led some to stop thinking about people in biblical categories. The desire to show love and kindness toward hurting people has led some believers to embrace falsehoods regarding gender and sexuality. The desire to see the poor protected has led some to turn their backs on biblical definitions of justice. And many a cause has led to Christians in spoken word and writing to compromise in the biblical area of speaking the truth in love.

But, dear friends, we must be a people of solid doctrine and conviction first. God does all he does for the sake of his glory. God’s word is our only infallible revelation of himself and his ways. God has not given us permission to ignore his doctrine for the sake of growing a broader social presence or community influence. God has never called the church to compromise the purity of the worship service to make it more appealing to those who do not know Jesus. While it is wonderful for the church to be kind to our friends and neighbors, it is glorious for us to share the gospel, and it is gracious for us to be sure that we explain things in the worship service so that lost guests can understand what is going on without feeling left out, the church exists for the glory of God in all things. We must obey his word. We must prioritize the honor of God in worship. We must prioritize the clear preaching of and obedience to the Scriptures in all areas of our church life.

I thought of all this while reading through 2 Chronicles. King Ahaz became a pragmatist. He looked at his experience as a king, and he chose to do that which worked. He had seen success for one group and failure for another. And Ahaz chose to do what he saw was successful. And his choice led to the wrath of God.

2 Chronicles 28:22-25 – 22 In the time of his distress he became yet more faithless to the Lord—this same King Ahaz. 23 For he sacrificed to the gods of Damascus that had defeated him and said, “Because the gods of the kings of Syria helped them, I will sacrifice to them that they may help me.” But they were the ruin of him and of all Israel. 24 And Ahaz gathered together the vessels of the house of God and cut in pieces the vessels of the house of God, and he shut up the doors of the house of the Lord, and he made himself altars in every corner of Jerusalem. 25 In every city of Judah he made high places to make offerings to other gods, provoking to anger the Lord, the God of his fathers.

Ahaz thought that the false gods of Syria had defeated the Lord. So, Ahaz decided to go with what worked. He began to worship those false gods. He broke down items in the temple and shut the doors. Ahaz led people away from the worship of the one true God in order to follow what he thought would be a path for national thriving. But Ahaz was unaware that the success of the Syrians over Israel was caused by the very compromise he was making.

Christians, may we not be like Ahaz. We must obey the word of God fully. That means that we make the glory of God our number one priority. WE make worship of God, genuine and biblical worship of God, what we do on Sunday. Yes, we go and share the gospel with our neighbors and friends and families. Yes, we care for the needy. Yes, we seek to see biblical justice done in our world. But we seek to obey God in all things. WE must choose from the beginning not to allow ourselves to compromise the word of God for what we think might work in a particular situation to bring about a desired conclusion. WE must trust the Lord to grow his church as the people of God remain stuck like glue to the holy word of God for the glory of Almighty God.

A Faulty Measure

How much of a pragmatist are you? If you do not know that word, to be pragmatic is to be someone who measures the goodness of an activity by whether or not it works. A pragmatist will evaluate what he or she does based on whether or not it gets the results he or she intends.

You might think to yourself that everybody ought to be a pragmatist. We all want to do things that work. But the problem is, there are things that will seem to be working, productive solutions to the problems of life, but those things can often times be wrong choices.

Of course, the place I find this discussed most is when we talk about activities and practices in a local church setting. By what standard do we measure the kinds of songs we sing, the kinds of sermons we preach, the kinds of outreach we do, or even the way we manipulate the setting of the worship service? Is our goal to get the most people in the room? Is our goal to get the biggest number of people regularly in the church building? Or is there another standard, a greater standard?

There have surely been times in my life when I thought like a pragmatist regarding the worship of the Lord. I thought that whatever promoted strong emotion or whatever drew more people to the service must be a good thing so long as I could not point to specific violations of clear commands. But as time has gone by in my life and in my Christian walk, I have discovered that God has not commanded us to measure our services by a pragmatic measure of greater numbers equals greater success or greater emotion equals greater success. Instead, the Lord has shown us that the exaltation of him, his glory, his holiness, his majesty, in accord with his word, by people genuinely committed to him, these are measures of success. Are we being faithful to the word? Are we painting a true picture of the Lord and his ways?

I thought of this topic as I read through the rebellion of the people of Judah who ran to Egypt during the days of the Babylonian captivity. It seems that part of the reason that God had judged Judah was that the people had been worshipping false gods and goddesses. The people had picked up that evil practice while in Egypt. And they were measuring the rightness or wrongness of that activity, not by the word of God, but by the seeming success or failure the practice was bringing to them.

Jeremiah 44:15-19 – 15 Then all the men who knew that their wives had made offerings to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who lived in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah: 16 “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you. 17 But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. 18 But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” 19 And the women said, “When we made offerings to the queen of heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, was it without our husbands’ approval that we made cakes for her bearing her image and poured out drink offerings to her?”

Imagine, God says to these people that they must stop worshipping this false goddess. They turn to Jeremiah, and with a straight face say that they will not obey. Why? When they worshipped the false goddess, they had more stuff. When they stopped, they went hungry and captive to Egypt. So they will worship her again.

Jeremiah, of course, will follow up this section with the truth of God. They were captive because of the worship of the false goddess. The Lord had been merciful to them for a season, even in their rebellion, but they would not turn from their evil. Their measure was wrong. Their actions were not OK when they had more stuff or wrong when they had less. The proper measure for their actions is the command of God, not the amount of food on the table.

Friends, be very careful measuring your choices or the choices of your church by pragmatism. The only measure of the rightness or wrongness of what you do and the attitude with which you do it is the word of God. What does Scripture tell us worship is about? What does Scripture show us that the church is about? What methods does God prescribe for Christian living, evangelism, social engagement, etc.? Growing in number is no proof of God’s favor. Diminishing in social influence is no sign of God’s disfavor. Faithfulness to Scripture leads to the favor of God. Ignoring the word of God will lead to his disfavor. So be sure you do not use the wrong measure.

But It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

What is God more interested in: your actions or your motives? This is a trick question. So many of us assume that, if we had good motives, our actions are not a big deal. But the Lord is clear in his word that both our actions and our motives matter a great deal.

Consider Saul, the king. He knew he needed to go into a battle. He knew that he had not sought the Lord’s favor by offering a sacrifice. But Saul was not authorized by God to make that sacrifice. Surely, if he broke the rule on who is allowed to make the offering, God would not mind. Surely God would not be so strict on those restrictions.

1 Samuel 13:8-14 – 8 He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. 9 So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. 10 As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him. 11 Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, 12 I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the Lord.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” 13 And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”

OK, it turns out that God was just as concerned about Saul’s obedience as he was about the offering. This move on the part of the king did not please the Lord. and this move on Saul’s part, along with a mess he makes in chapter 15, results in his family’s loss of the throne of Israel.

Consider how applicable this all is to our lives as Christians. What things are Christians compromising right now? What are we willing to think God will be OK with so long as our motives are pure and the results of our actions successful? Where do we decide that a pragmatic victory is worth more than obedience?

I see this in the way that many compromise worship for the sake of supposedly reaching out to the lost. Some churches shape what they do on Sundays entirely around those who are not part of the family of God. But the Lord is clear that worship is about him, not about those who are turned against him.

Or what about the way that many churches and individuals compromise on hot-button social issues for the sake of being received by the world? Should we not be more interested in pleasing the Lord than in gaining a reputation in our community through compromise?

I bet, if you think about it, you can think of several ways that you are personally tempted to cut corners on the things of God for the sake of what you think is a good end. We do not want to be naturally offensive people. We do not want to seem weird to the world. We do not want to look like our standards or our thoughts are several centuries out-of-date.

But the truth is, dear Christian friends, our thoughts and standards are not going to be with the times. They cannot be so and still please the Lord. Our actions have to be based on obedience to the word of God, and not on any sort of pragmatic focus on supposed life or ministry success. God wants us to submit to him, to love him, and to keep his word. Let us remember that doing so is very important, even if we think that we have good motivation to turn to our own ideas.