For Conscience Sake

Christian liberty is God encouraging us to determine for ourselves how best to follow Him: we each stand or fall before our own Master. (Ro 14:4-5) He isn’t encouraging us to sin (Ro 6:15), to break His law (1Jn 3:4), but to apply His precepts in extra-biblical matters in ways we believe most pleases Him. It’s something He calls us to do from the heart as we follow Him, rather than blindly conforming to man-made tradition.

A very challenging scenario for early Christians was whether to eat food that might have been sacrificed to idols. (1Co 10:28-29) It wasn’t technically sinful, but many weaker souls didn’t understand, so extra-biblical discernment was required in each particular situation. When one was offered food in a public context, either in the open markets or at a particular feast, one couldn’t be sure if it had been sacrificed to an idol or not, and how others might view this.

For mature believers, knowing rituals can’t contaminate our food (1Co 8:4), Paul resolves this with a don’t ask policy (25); it isn’t actually a matter of sin since no food belongs to an idol. (26) But if someone points out that some food’s been dedicated to an idol, then abstain to avoid causing others with a weak conscience to stumble. (28) Love limits freedom for conscience sake, not for ourselves but for others.

Taken out of context, this principle might be abused to claim that God doesn’t care what we eat now; no matter what kind of food’s available – don’t worry about whether it’s God’s design for food, biblically clean, or not. After all, Paul does say in the same context, “All things are lawful for me.” (1Co 10:23)

Yet taking such principles literally in isolation produces absurdity. If “all things are lawful for me,” then murder, sodomy and blasphemy are fine now? Of course not! And even if we limit this to food, is cannibalism OK now? Or poisonous frogs, cockroaches and flies? Not at all.  Contextually, it’s clear that Paul is saying every creature God has sanctified as food for us in His Word is lawful and good (1Ti 4:4-5), regardless what ritual has been performed over it.

When wrestling with passages like this, trying to understand the relevance of Torah in our lives, particularly dietary law, we must divide the word honestly, rightly harmonizing each text with the whole of scripture. It’s true that Paul doesn’t explicitly delineate how every single law in Torah is still relevant for both Jew and gentile, yet he shouldn’t have to: Jesus does, as clearly as it can be done – it’s all relevant for everyone for all time. (Mt 5:17-18) Saints are classified by our mind towards it (19), and all who break it as a manner of life are guilty without excuse. (Ro 3:19)

Paul never says Gentiles don’t have to obey certain parts of Torah, breaking God’s Law up into pieces, some of which are irrelevant. This can’t rightly be done (Ja 2:10); we get this mindset from those who’ve corrupted the Word. (2Co 2:17) Instead, Paul asserts that faith establishes Torah (Ro 3:31), and that it’s all good when used as God intended (1Ti 1:8), pointing out that our old man hates it (Ro 8:7) and our new man delights in it. (Ro 7:22) Once we’re aligned with Paul, serving Torah (Ro 7:25), we won’t be asking which laws we must obey, but which ones we’re allowed to.

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Food for You

As Noah departs the Ark after the Great Flood, God extends the general dietary principle, what He’s classified as food. In the Garden, He had revealed his provision of plants for nourishment (Ge 1:30), and now He’s allowing anything that moves to be eaten. (Ge 9:3)

What’s interesting to observe about God’s dietary revelation is that it’s very general; important, critical details are omitted. For example, we shouldn’t eat certain kinds of plants because they’re poisonous, yet God never explicitly tells us which plants to avoid and why.

As a general principle, plants are food, but each particular animal species should only eat certain kinds of plants. God gives each species instincts about what’s good to eat, and places Adam in a special garden stocked with a wide variety of edible herbs and fruit trees as a start. He also gives Man intelligence to figure out the rest, so with a bit of trial and error, we do just fine in the antediluvian world. The key point being this: just because something appears to be in the general category of food, doesn’t mean that we humans should be eating it. We need wisdom and discernment to be healthy.

The same appears to be true for eating animals; this dietary extension to eat flesh applies to certain animals as well as to humans, according to God’s design in each of His creatures. By nature, some creatures are merely herbivores and some are capable of being carnivores or omnivores. So, as Noah considers God’s extension of the dietary principle to include meat, as there’s a design apparent in certain animals that enables them to eat it, there’s also an obvious guideline for Man about which animals are good to eat, which Noah understands to be clean.

This concept of clean animals wasn’t new, it was well-known in the antediluvian world, even though we’ve no record of any direct revelation from God about it. Perhaps Adam discerned that certain kinds of animals were distinctly different from others in a way that made them suitable for humans to domesticate, even though we weren’t eating them. For example, Adam might have discovered that milk and wool from sheep were especially good, and taught his sons about it. Perhaps this is why Abel chose shepherding as his profession. (Ge 4:2)

In other words, Adam had not merely named all of the animals (Ge 2:19), but he may have observed enough about each species to classify it as clean or unclean, and taught the rest of us how to distinguish between them. Perhaps this is why, when God told Noah to take into the Ark seven of each of the clean species of animals, and only two of each unclean species, He didn’t need to explain; Noah appears to have already known exactly how to do this. (Ge 7:2)

And as Noah is leaving the Ark, contemplating the spare of each of the clean animals, he perceives that God will be pleased with an enormous sacrifice (Ge 8:20), an expression of God’s ownership of all things, rejoicing in His pleasure in sparing life on the earth.

After the sacrifice, noting the remaining three pair of each clean animal species, and only one pair of all of the other animal species, as Noah was considering God’s expanded dietary principle, recognizing that eating any of the unclean animals in the near future would cause that species to become extinct, it was immediately clear which animals God intended for human consumption: the clean ones, especially those which we were already in the habit of directly managing.

But over time, this knowledge about which kinds of animals were good for us to eat seems to have deteriorated to the point that it was appropriate for God formally define it for us; as men began to rebel against God in every conceivable manner, the dietary principle was evidently no exception. So, in formalizing His perfect ways for Israel, God reminds them to not eat abominable things (De 14:3), animals which He has not designed for humans to eat, clearly explaining exactly how to distinguish between clean and unclean animals (6) and giving us a number of specific examples of clean beasts (4) and unclean ones (7), edible fish (9-10) and unclean birds. (11-18) This wasn’t a change in the dietary revelation, or even a new concept, just a formalization of what He had already informally revealed in us to establish clarity and accountability.

God has progressively revealed His eternal ways over time; He hasn’t ever changed His mind about what’s good for us, nor has He been arbitrary in His commands: they’re righteous and very faithful, each and every one of them. (Ps 119:138)

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None Good but God

When a rich young man approaches Jesus Christ to inquire about salvation, he begins by addressing Christ as “Good Master.” (Mt 19:16) Christ replies, as He often does, by questioning the young man: “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” (17a)

Christ systematically uses questions to help us think through what we’re doing so we can find the truth. This case appears to be no different. What is Christ leading the young man to discover?

Some might claim from Christ’s response that He’s rebuking the young man, admitting that He Himself isn’t good because He isn’t God. If this were true, then a rebuke would certainly be appropriate, but it presupposes that Christ is merely human. So, treating this as evidence of Christ’s mere humanity is classic circular reasoning, a logical fallacy.

If we observe carefully, Christ doesn’t actually assert that He isn’t good, or that the young man’s address is inappropriate; the mere question isn’t a condemnation. Christ simply affirms that no one is truly good except God; everyone else is sinful and depraved by nature. So, is the young man acknowledging the divinity and perfection of Christ, or is he flattering a sinful creature like himself? Christ’s challenge is to awaken: either Christ is God, or He isn’t good.

This question challenges us all, does it not? Many are tempted to describe Jesus Christ as merely a good, moral teacher, perhaps the greatest ever, and nothing more. Yet Christ Himself doesn’t leave us this option: He spoke in ways that were totally inappropriate for a mere man. (Jn 8:12, 19, 23, 29, 58)

So, we’re left to choose: either Christ is God, or He wasn’t good; there is no in-between. This is the most profound choice one will ever make, so choose wisely and fully, and then live accordingly.

Unless we find some clear fault in Jesus Christ, some obvious flaw in His character, it’s exceedingly unwise to presume He isn’t Who He claims to be. (Jn_14:6) A Man who foretells His own innocent suffering and death (Mt 16:21), and claims He will raise Himself from the dead (Jn 10:17-18), and then pulls this off — and actually does it — has given us more proof than we could ever need.

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Far Better

Strange as it may seem, I’ve been struggling with regret that I will die and go to Heaven. It’s irrational, of course, and it’s unrelated to anything temporal; it isn’t because I’ll miss some physical or relational aspect of my life here on Earth.

The dilemma is that I haven’t been able to imagine how I could possibly have more access to God than I already have. Now, I can be as close to Him as I like, closer than my own breath. I can talk to Him any time, commune with Him whenever I like, as much as I want. (2Co 13:14) No one else can separate me from Him (Ro 8:39), or have any claim on Him that might constrain my access to Him; nothing ever interferes or limits His availability to me.

Yet, as Christ was in an earthly body, bound by time and space, He could only personally converse with one person at a time; only one disciple at a time could lean on Jesus’ bosom (Jn 13:23); He could only hold one or two children in His arms at a time. There’s something about the physicality of Heaven that seems intrinsically to break down the omnipresence of God to me: once I see Him, I will then also see the millions of others who clamor for His attention, and I cannot understand how I could possibly have the same unfiltered, unbroken, unrestrained access to Him there that I have here and now.

This uncertainty has been causing me to hesitate about Heaven; my fellowship with Him is the most precious thing to me, and I cannot let the smallest particle of it go without feeling a sense of immense loss. As the disciples could not possibly understand why it was expedient for Christ to depart from this world so the Comforter would come (Jn 16:5-7), I’ve been feeling similarly. How could it possibly be good for me to die and go to Heaven, where both Father and Son will appear so very far away, surrounded by millions of saints, from whom I’m essentially indistinguishable?

How it could be better I cannot actually fathom yet, but God says it is not just better, but far better to depart this world to be with Christ. (Php 1:23) To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2Co 5:8), and it is, in fact, evidently the kind of presence that makes what I have now much more like absence (2Co 5:6), more like blindness than sight. (2Co 5:7)

If from the vantage of Heaven I will consider what I had on Earth an absence from Jesus Christ, a blindness compared to how I am finally seeing, then this heavenly state must indeed be infinitely and indescribably precious. Now, I can align with Paul, and know a passion to depart this life to be so much more with God than I am now!

Meanwhile, it’s like I’m straining to see Him through darkly colored windows, but soon it will be face to face. (1Co 13:12) This hope I have as an anchor of my soul, both sure and steadfast, entering within the veil, the holiest place in the universe, where Jesus Christ abides (He 6:19-20), and I in Him.

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I Am Thy Servant

Those who wrote scripture claimed to be slaves of Christ, to be His loyal servants. (Ro 1:1) Sounds admirable, even holy, so should we be saying the same? Or is it a bit presumptuous for normal people like ourselves to do so? (Ps 119:125) How can we tell?

Well, a loyal servant is always seeking to please their master, never deliberately or carelessly disobeying, consistently doing their best to serve, looking for ways to make their master as happy as possible. Is that your attitude towards Christ?

If not, if there are areas in your life that are off-limits for God, where you are able to obey Him but are knowingly and deliberately refusing to do so as a manner of life, then, no, you are not a servant of God. This defines one as a child of disobedience. (Ep 2:2-3)

Or, are you simply living life for yourself, with little regard for whether you’re pleasing God or not? That’s not much different; those who live like this are Christ’s enemies. (Php 3:18-19).

Those who neglect to obey Christ don’t love Him (Jn 14:21), and those who don’t love Jesus Christ don’t belong to Him (1Co 16:22)

So, yes, every child of God should heartily claim to be a servant of Jesus Christ (Col 3:24), and this won’t just be empty words, it will express the reality of our daily lives. As we choose Christ as Master we are choosing to be His slaves, to gladly do for Him whatever He bids us do. (Lk 6:46) We’re members of Christ (1Co 12:27), part of His very Body; He’s living in and through us — we’re His hands and eyes and feet on Earth: called, chosen and faithful. (Re 17:14)

But it’s also true that our very best may not actually be very good at all. If we’ve not been careful to follow after holiness, purging our hearts and minds of lies and deception, much of what we offer to Christ may, in fact, be wood hay and stubble, consumed in the fire of God’s discerning judgement. (1Co 3:12-13) Pride, ignorance and arrogance can pollute everything we do, such that we’re largely ineffective for Christ.

Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling (Ps 2:11), continually asking God to show us His Way (Ps 25:4), revealing Himself until we might see Him as He is (1Jn 3:2), and we’re transformed into His image. (2Co 3:18)

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Be Strong

Weakness is something we all experience; it’s unavoidable. We’re born in weakness, and we’ll probably die in weakness. We get sick, injured, tired, eventually old. Weakness makes us feel vulnerable, unable to care for ourselves and others. Why would anyone deliberately choose weakness, choosing to be more vulnerable than necessary?

A couple possibilities are obvious. We might not love ourselves properly, abusing or neglecting ours minds, souls and bodies, thereby causing ourselves to deteriorate into weakness. Similarly, we might not love others, being resentful or envious, and might want to burden others with our physical, emotional or spiritual care. In any case, deliberately choosing weakness like this violates the 2nd Great Command, to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Mt 22:39) Love does not choose weakness, either for itself or others.

Yet, even if we love as we ought, we might confuse weakness with humility and find a little virtue in it, seeking to be inordinately dependent. Yet how could this be a virtue when God commands us to be strong? (1Co 16:13) Strength must be aligned with humility; we must strive to be strong and humble at the same time.

The Apostle Paul recognized that when he was weak in ways that were beyond his control, he found the strength he needed in God’s grace. (2Co 12:9-10) But though Paul gloried in scenarios that made him weak, he never deliberately weakened himself, or neglected to be as strong as he could possibly be. This is key.

Strength is the ability or power to act according to one’s potential; the closer we are to being able to live in our ultimate design, the stronger we are. This comprises the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of our being. To willfully neglect strength in any area of our lives is to despise our intrinsic design, our value, our Creator’s benevolent purposes for us. (Col 1:11)

God has designed us such that if we obey Him in exercising ourselves (1Ti 4:7), prayerfully and wisely pushing our current limits to try to improve  (2Pe 1:5-7), we will grow (1Ti 4:8) and He will gird us with strength. (Ps 18:32) Every part of our design is like this; we just have to be willing to discipline ourselves and honor Him, balancing our lives to care for ourselves so we can live according to His calling and election in us.

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To His Own Master

Scripture is perfectly precise; it isn’t overly specific, nor is it inappropriately vague. The detail God has provided is both necessary and sufficient for us; we must not add to it, nor take away from it. (De 4:2)

Yet there are a great variety of circumstances in which we might find ourselves, and a body of law which explicitly detailed how to act in every conceivable setting would be enormous, unthinkably vast, anticipating the impact of undeveloped technologies and innumerable cultural/familial complexities. Composing such a paint-by-the-numbers standard is evidently untenable as we consider the great variety of possible cultural and societal forms that might evolve across time.

Even so, all we need to be fully equipped to please God in every circumstance of life is provided us in the Tanakh, the Old Testament. (2Ti 3:16-17) We may derive from its precepts how God would have us act in every scenario we could ever encounter. It is miraculously precise in this regard, a living Sword, discerning every motive and intent of our hearts. (He 4:12)

So, in extra-biblical matters, which are by definition beyond the scope and obvious spirit of the text of Scripture, we are required and encouraged to use our own judgement and understanding as to how best to follow God, discerning His way for us through the precepts embedded in His Word (Ps 119:104), which He must help us understand (Ps 119:27) as we meditate on them (Ps 119:15) in the Spirit. (1Jn 2:27)

Each of us may, indeed, being at varying points in our journey after God, see things a bit differently from those around us; this is both expected and healthy. God does not want us to blindly defer to others in these kinds of things by failing to seek His wisdom and discernment for ourselves, but to maintain a sense of individual responsibility to walk and to please Him. He tells us to be fully persuaded in our own mind (Ro 14:5), and to be happy in the freedom to obey according to our own conscience. (Ro 14:22)

This kind of spiritual autonomy and individuality does not promote lawlessness, where everyone’s selfishly doing what’s right in their own eyes (De 12:8) in spite of what God says, justifying absolutely anything they like. (Pr 21:2) Such is the way of the world. (Pr 30:12) This kind of liberty only works well in communities of saints, who delight in God’s Law as He is writing it in their hearts.

Neither should we permit our individuality to make us unteachable, disinterested in the insights, wisdom and challenges of others. (He 10:25) It is our great privilege to edify one another, seeking the living Christ in each other as we help each other follow Him. (1Th 5:11) This is the very foundation of spiritual community. (1Co 14:26)

And, to be certain, there are clear guidelines for this kind of spiritual liberty; we must not allow it to become a stumbling block to our weaker brothers. (1Co 8:9) When a brother or sister doesn’t have a mature understanding of God’s Way, and would be tempted to violate their untrained conscience through our example, walking in such liberty violates the law of love and sins against Christ Himself. (1Co 8:12) Further, insisting that others follow our particular understanding when seeking practical consensus in community is likewise stubborn uncharitableness. In such cases, deferring to others, especially the elder and more experienced, is simply wisdom. (Ep 5:21)

The dangerous alternative to God’s design here is to impose universal compliance in matters which God has not clearly specified, effectively adding to His Word through man-made tradition, which subtly — yet inevitably — corrupts our worship (Mk_7:7) and turns us from the truth. (Tit 1:14) It elevates a select group of men above the brotherhood into a place of unhealthy spiritual authority over others, oppressing the saints into delegating their responsibility to discern the optimal application of God’s Word for themselves to these select few. This is entirely contrary to God’s design for our spiritual life.

To be healthy in God, we must each retain a sense of individual accountability to God as our own Master (Ro 14:7-8), and encourage others to do the same. (Rom 14:4). We’re each individually responsible for how we live before Him; if we’re in any kind of error (Ja 1:16), or are misapplying God’s Word in some way, it is no one’s fault but our own.

The head of every man is Jesus Christ (1Co 11:3); we are to be looking unto Him as our Example in every facet of our lives (He 12:2), delegating no step of this precious, eternal walk to anyone else. (1Pe 2:21)

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Thou, LORD, Hast Done It

Evidence for the existence of God is found in what He’s done, things no one else could possibly do. (Ps 109:27) It’s based on the Law of Cause and Effect; that every effect, everything that happens, has a cause. If the cause can’t be natural, then it must be supernatural: God must be the Cause.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument, the primary way of establishing the existence of God (Ro 1:20-21), is based on this law:

  1. Everything that comes into being has a cause.
  2. The universe came into being.
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

Premise 1 is merely a restatement of the Law of Cause and Effect, which forms the basis of all scientific inquiry. We presuppose it whenever we’re trying to understand something natural. When we’re being honest, we never suppose something just is, that it’s causeless. We instinctively ask Why? looking for the cause. People only deny this law when they’re biased, averse to the implications – and there’s just one scenario like this: when the Cause is God. We find the idea absurd otherwise; it opposes science itself.

Premise 2 is true because if Nature (i.e. everything that is natural) is infinitely old then it would be at steady state with no usable energy (due to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics), and it’s not. Since Nature is not infinitely old, it must have come into being.

So, the universe, or Nature, the entire space-time continuum, came into being; therefore it had a cause. Nature could not have caused itself since effects must be distinct from their causes; the cause of all of Nature must therefore be distinct from and separate from all of Nature. Thus the cause of Nature cannot be natural; it must be non-physical, beyond space and time: spiritual, supernatural. We call this supernatural, spiritual Cause of Nature: God.

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