Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Pope and the Paraclete

The most current self-proclaimed Vicar of Christ has been making the news again. Pope Francis recently wrote a scathing letter to a few tenacious African priests who rejected the papal appointment of their local bishop.

Francis compared the actions of these priests to the “murderous tenants” in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, and declared their disobedience to his directives a “mortal sin”. To regain proper standing, the priests must first write a letter of apology, seeking the forgiveness of the Pope. And second, they must clearly manifest total obedience to him.

Do these actions of Pope Francis shock you? What about the time he said that trying to convince nonchristians to convert to faith in Christ is an illicit poison? Or when he declared that one of the ten secrets to a happy life is to not proselytize? And finally, what about the article he wrote in 2013 stating that even atheists have already been redeemed by the blood of Jesus and are children of God just like Christians?

Perhaps you’re wondering how someone would have the audacity to say and do such things. If that’s the case, maybe it would help to understand Francis’ point of view.  

First, Pope Francis views himself as the Pontifex Maximus, which literally means that he believes he is the supreme bridge builder between God and mankind. Francis also believes that, because he possesses Papal infallibility, he is incapable of erring in even the slightest way when teaching on matters of faith and morality. And why would anyone come to such an extreme conclusion about themselves? The reason is that the Pope teaches that he is the Vicar of Christ, or the visible head of the Church on earth who is acting for and in the place of Christ.  

So basically, if you disagree with the Pope, the Pope says you are disagreeing with God. If you disobey the Pope, the Pope says you are disobeying God.

But what did the early Christians believe about the Vicar of Christ? Who did they believe is the primarily agent acting on Jesus’ behalf on earth?

Our Lord Christ has surnamed Himself Truth, not Custom. … Whatever savors of opposition to truth, this will be heresy, even (if it be an) ancient custom. … The reason why the Lord sent the Paraclete was that, since human mediocrity was unable to take in all things at once, discipline should, little by little, be directed and ordained and carried on to perfection by that Vicar of the Lord, the Holy Spirit. “Still,” He said, “I have many things to say to you, but you are not yet able to bear them: when that Spirit of truth shall come, He will direct you into all truth, and will report to you the things that must take place.” – Tertullian 207CE, ANF Volume 4, p. 44-45 [CD-ROM]

Most of us would agree with Tertullian. The true Vicar of Christ on earth is the Holy Spirit. After all, Jesus told His disciples in John 14:16-17, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

It’s one thing to intellectually agree that the Holy Spirit is Christ’s representative on earth, and thus speaks on His behalf with all authority. However, it’s another thing all together to have that intellectual belief become a functional reality in our lives.

So, who or what holds the functional place of God in your life? Your feelings? Cultural norms? Your finances? A certain person? A quest for more money, control or security? Your appearance? What is the actual driving-force behind your decision-making?

It can be scary and sometimes frustrating to begin to honestly answer that question. But the real Vicar of Christ, the Holy Spirit, is here to help us. He is for us, not against us. He is the Spirit of truth, and one of His main jobs is to transform us to become more and more like the One who is the Truth and the only way to God the Father, Jesus Christ. And though Pope Francis may disagree, He is someone that everyone needs to know about.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Bernie Vs. The Believer

Is it unloving to believe and then proclaim that those who reject Jesus as their Lord and Savior will be condemned by God? Does holding that belief make a person incapable of demonstrating love and fairness to the individuals he or she believes currently stand condemned?

These are the issues that Russell Vought was faced with during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill recently. President Trump nominated Vought to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, but it has not been a smooth transition thus far.  

Vought is an alumnus of Wheaton College, which in 2015 suspended a tenured professor who declared that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In response to the professor, Vought wrote a blog stating, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

Various groups latched on to Vought’s statement about condemnation and questioned whether his beliefs allow him to be capable of serving all Americans fairly. At Vought’s confirmation hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders repeatedly questioned Vought about his faith, and strongly insinuated that Vought’s beliefs make him Islamophobic.

So, Is Sanders right? Is it hateful to believe and proclaim that those who reject Jesus as their Lord and Savior will be condemned by God?

Let’s begin to answer that question by taking a simple look at perhaps the most popular passage of Scripture in the New Testament. 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. – John 3:16-19 ESV

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle John clearly wrote that those who do not believe in Jesus stand condemned. In fact, verse 18 was specifically cited by Vought in his blog post. To be sure, there are Christians who don’t agree with Vought’s choice of words. But if they are ashamed of his statement that all are condemned apart from faith in Christ, they are actually displaying that they are ashamed of some of the most foundational words of Christianity.

The Apostle John later testified that the words of his gospel are true and have been recorded so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in His name. Therefore, it is more than reasonable to conclude that one of the most loving things we can do is testify to others about their dire need to receive Christ.

What about Sen. Sanders’ second assertion? Is it impossible to demonstrate love and fairness to those one believes currently stand condemned in the eyes of God?

To be fair to Sanders, historically speaking, the merging of the cross with the State has neither been beneficial for the lost nor the Church. The first recorded act of homicide committed by a Christian against a nonchristian did not occur until after 380CE, when Roman Emperor Theodosius virtually made it illegal to not be a Christian. A few decades later, Augustine began to develop a theory of Just War, by which a Christian could feel justified in slaughtering pagans.

But that is not how it was in the beginning.

Early Christian writer, Irenaeus, was the Bishop of Lyons throughout in the mid-late 2nd century. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. What we find in the writings of Irenaeus is a man who unashamedly testified to the simple words of Christ, and also a man who, like Christ, would lay down his life for the salvation of his enemies. 

First, let’s take a look at Irenaeus’ interpretation of John 3:18.

And for this purpose did the Father reveal the Son, that through His instrumentality He might be manifested to all, and might receive those righteous ones who believe in Him into incorruption and everlasting enjoyment; … but He shall righteously shut out into the darkness which they have chosen for themselves, those who do not believe, and who do consequently avoid His light. For it was fitting that the truth should receive testimony from all, and should become [a means of] judgment for the salvation indeed of those who believe, but for the condemnation of those who believe not. …  Wherefore did the Lord say to His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no man comes to the Father but by Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” – Irenaeus 180CE, ANF Volume 1, p. 781, 783-784 [CD-ROM]

There was no dancing around challenging doctrines with Irenaeus and the early Christians. If the Jesus said it, they believed it. Therefore, when the Scriptures spoke of the Holy Spirit empowering followers of Jesus to love our enemies and walking as Jesus they believed that too.

From the Lord’s advent, the new covenant which brings back peace, and the law which gives life, has gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and He shall rebuke many people; and they shall break down their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, and they shall no longer learn to fight.” … The word of God, preached by the apostles (who went forth from Jerusalem) throughout all the earth, caused such a change in the state of things, that these [nations] did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the corn, [that is], into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten, offer also the other cheek. – Irenaeus 180CE, ANF Volume 1, p. 859-860 [CD-ROM]

Christians being put on trial and persecuted for their uncompromising, nonviolent faith is as ancient as the days following Pentecost in the book of Acts. So we should not consider it strange when similar events unfold before our eyes in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, it is rare these days to see Christians who will literally turn the other cheek. Who will literally bless their persecutors. Who will literally refuse to repay evil with evil. Who will seek to do good to all people. And at the same time, who will boldly proclaim the truth that all who reject Jesus Christ will face eternal destruction.

So, we need to pray for Russell Vought to remain faithful, courageous and hopeful during this trial. And finally, pray Senator Bernie Sanders as well. Pray that that the eyes of his heart will be opened, he will turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that he may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Jesus. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Consistent Mission

When my wife and I were taking our mandated CPS parenting classes to adopt our two kids, we heard over and over how important consistency would be for our children. All children who have been placed into the Foster system have had their lives upended, and many of them experience one major change after another. Over these last three years, we’ve been doing our best to be as consistent as possible with our kiddos, and it’s clear that the instructors knew what they were talking about. 

Consistency isn’t just important at home; it’s a vital component for success in most aspects of life, and especially for the Church.

In many of my evangelistic conversations with nonchristians, one of the main reasons they give for rejecting Jesus is that His followers don’t display consistency in adhering to His commands. “Buddhists follow Buddha. Muslims follow Muhammad,” they say, “so why don’t Christians follow Jesus?”

I usually jump on this question, seeing it as an opportunity to tell them how the earliest Christians did follow the simple words of Christ with great consistency. And the Holy Spirit often uses that mini-history lesson to begin opening the minds and hearts of the folks I’m conversing with.

However, I can’t deny the obvious inconsistencies we see these days. For instance, shortly after the recent London terrorist attacks, Congressman Clay Higgins took to Facebook to galvanize Christians all around the world. Exclaiming that all Christians are at war with Islam, Higgins called us to give no quarter to anyone suspected of being a radical Islamist. He then urged us to hunt them down and kill them all.

When I see purported Christians talking like this, one particular question immediately comes to my mind. Who did Jesus suffer and die to save?

To answer that question, let’s think about how Jesus is the true atonement slate or mercy seat in the holy of holies.

The writer of Hebrews states that in the holy of holies there was “a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat” (9:4-5). The Greek word translated as “mercy seat” is hilasterion, a derivative of hilaskomai.

There are two Scriptures that shed light on how the mercy seat is fulfilled in Jesus. As you read these, remember the atonement slate (hilasterion) is the place where God intersects humanity to bring them back in relationship with Him.

The first Scripture is Romans 3:23-25, where Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” The word “propitiation” in Greek is hilasterion. So, Paul is saying when Jesus was crucified, God displayed Him as a public atonement slate for all to see.

Why would God do this with His true Mercy Seat, when previously only the high priest was able to see the mercy seat in the holy of holies once each year? The second Scripture answers that question.

In 1 John 2:1-2, the apostle writes, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” Once again, the word translated “propitiation” in the Greek is hilasmos, a derivative of hilaskomai. It makes sense God would put His true Atonement Slate on public display outside the city gate, because Jesus came to be the atoning sacrifice for the whole world, not just a select few.

There are many more passages I could cite, but the point is clear: Jesus suffered and died for everyone because He wants everyone to be saved. However, Congressman Higgins seems to believe that in order to save and defend all that is good and righteous, we must kill people that Jesus died for.

I would like to ask Congressman Higgins what he’s calling Christians to defend: America, or the kingdom of God? For, as the early Christians displayed, the goodness and righteousness of God’s kingdom is not defended through worldly methods.

Religion is to be defended – not by putting to death – but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. Not by guilt, but by good faith. For the former belongs to evil, but the latter to the good. … For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, tortures, and guilt, it will no longer be defended. Rather, it will be polluted and profaned. … The worship of God, since it belongs to heavenly warfare, requires the greatest devotedness and fidelity. – Lactantius 304-313CE, ANF Volume 7, p. 239 [CD-ROM] 

The early Christians were consistent in their devotion to Christ. They were also consistent in the way the doctrine of redemption affected their approach toward the lost. And because of their love-filled consistency, nearly 1/10th of the Roman Empire had become disciples of Jesus by the end of the third century.

Now more than ever, with there being so much hostility toward Christianity in our world, we Christians need to be consistent in our mission of discipleship. It’s not enough to only love, serve and forgive the people that we like, that like us or look like us. It’s not enough to only be on mission with Christ when we feel safe.

The mission Jesus invites us to calls for consistency. And if we will trust Him enough to do things His way with consistency, we will see Him turn enemies of the cross into passionate followers of the Way. Our God can do exceedingly more than we can ask or imagine!