These Signs

Christ tells us supernatural signs will follow believers. (Mk 16:17-18) Does this mean we should all be healing the sick, casting out demons, babbling in foreign languages we haven’t learned, and handling deadly vipers without harm? That if we aren’t walking in the sensational then we’re carnal, or worse?

No; we don’t each have all the gifts, and this is by design. (1Co 12:29-30) Christ is speaking here about the body of believers as a whole over time; the supernatural has indeed been observed among the saints through the ages, but each believer has unique gifts based on the needs of Christ’s local body at any given time and place. (1Co 12:18)

The intent of God’s gifts is evidently not to entertain, or to inflate our egos, or make us appear super spiritual. The greatest mere man who ever lived (Mt 11:11) never performed a miracle (Jn 10:41); the Corinthians pursued supernatural gifts (1Co 14:12), yet remained carnal, babes in Christ. (1Co 3:1) Pursuing the supernatural for ungodly motives gets us nothing. (1Ti 1:5-6)

God gives gifts to help the church become more like Christ (1Co 14:26), to know Him as He is. (Eph 4:11-13) He also bears witness with evangelists (He 2:4) to enable them to proclaim the gospel to those who are seeking Him. (Ac 8:6) In themselves, even the best miracles don’t move those who aren’t seeking God. (Jn 12:37)

In a world full of churches little different from the world, and bibles seldom read, at least in 1st and 2nd world countries, where is the miraculous needed? (Mt 16:4) Can’t those who’re seeking God today find Him without signs and wonders? I, for one, didn’t need them, at least the kind most are seeking.

The miracles I experience enable me to navigate a perilous world without getting all tangled up in it; they help me live as I ought, facing an incessant stream of spiritual enmity. (Ep 6:12) It isn’t glamorous; no one can see it but me, but it’s what I need to live for Him.

As we seek God, wherever we are, and gifts from Him to help ourselves and others find Him, know Him and walk with Him, He will empower and enable us us as He wills. In any case, to be safe in our pursuit of the supernatural, we must ever be seeking the Giver Himself, and not merely His gifts.

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The Word of Faith

Salvation’s a mysterious thing, for sure, how and why God intervenes in our headlong dash to destruction (Mt 7:13); His mercy is infinite, even in the best of us;  we’ve no hope apart from Him.

Medicine Root Trailhead, Badlands National Park, SD • Dan Anderson

In some ways, getting saved seems so simple, but simple solutions to complex problems are usually wrong. When we look closely at this one — and we’d better — it’s like most anything else about a living being: a flat-out miracle.

When first struggling with this, I was told I just needed to confess Christ as Lord, believe in His Resurrection, and sincerely ask Him to save me. (Ro 10:9, 13) It seemed scriptural, and so doable, but it didn’t work, not for me. Thus began my long and painful journey, striving to enter the narrow way (Mt 7:14), a trip few will ever make.

As usual, context provides the key, revealing what accepting Christ is all about: “But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.” (Ro 10:8) If we don’t understand this in context, we’re all out of context, and I’ve never seen a reasonable explanation of this verse, how it all ties together. So, here we go.

The quote is from Torah: “But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” (De 30:14) The key to salvation is our heart, and the law of God (Torah, “the word”) becoming part of us (“in thy heart”). We don’t start out this way, aligned with God’s Law from the heart (Ro 8:7), because our heart is evil (De 29:4), so we need a new one (De 5:29): we need to be transformed. (2Co 5:17) The gospel, the good news, is that God is able and willing to provide us a new heart (Ez 36:26)and write His laws into it (He 10:16), enabling us to keep them. (1Jn 3:24)

Eternal salvation is not found in ritual, but only in the mystery miracle (Mt 19:26) of becoming one with the eternal God through His Son Jesus Christ (Jn 17:21), entering into His rest by faith(He 4:3) Evidence of this transformation is a heart cleaving to God, delighting in Him and His laws above all else, obeying Him and following His Way (Jn 14:6)assured of our eternal destiny only in what Christ has done for us. (1Th 1:5)

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He Hardeneth

Scripture teaches God controls us all, even deciding our eternal fate, having mercy on a few of us and hardening the rest. (Ro 9:18) Is God then unfair to condemn us, since He controls us? (Ro 9:19)

This seems so obviously wrong, even asking the question is embarrassing. But obviousness is often the enemy of correctness; in the end, how can any complaint against the goodness of God be rational? (Ro 9:14) Perhaps an illustration will help.

Single block ice sculpture, World Ice Art Championship, Fairbanks AK

Suppose we dwell in a frigid climate where we enjoy three things: lounging in a hot tub under crisp, starlit heavens; ice water bathing; and competing in the annual ice sculpture festival. Being thrifty and innovative, we design special panels we can assemble into water-tight tubs of various shapes and sizes. When we want a steamy evening outside, we put one together, fill it with water and drop in a heating element. When we want our ice bath, we back off the heat to just above freezing and take the plunge; and at sculpture time we pull the heater, let it freeze, pull the panels and put our genius to work.

With a reliable water heater we can control the state of the water in our tub as we please, from steamy to frozen solid, by precisely controlling the heat we supply. In making ice we could say we’re “hardening” the water, but we’re really just withdrawing heat and leaving the water alone; where we live, water hardens naturally all by itself, and very predictably.

In the same way, God controls us by resisting our fallen, sinful nature (Ps 19:13), either reining in our depravity (De 18:14) (i.e. heating the water), or giving us up to pursue our own evil ways as He sees fit (Ps 81:12) (i.e. letting the water freeze). God never actively causes anyone to sin (Ja 1:13-14), or forcefully hardens anyone; we do that all on our own whenever He lets us.

God’s hardening is passive, simply letting us go our own way (Pr 1:31), not forcing us; when left to ourselves, we obey the law of sin operating within us (Ro 7:23), so we’re as predictable as the law of gravity. God knows exactly what we’ll do in every circumstance if He withdraws His grace from us.  Just as we can control an object‘s elevation by only pushing it upward, never causing it to fall, God can precisely control us by restraining our evil nature without causing us to sin. (Pr 16:9)

God isn’t unjust or unloving in letting us sin; it’s the essence of free will; and we’re no less guilty because we always want to sin as much as He will allow us to. (Ro 3:19) Neither is God ever unjust or unloving in restraining us, some much more than others: it’s all His mercy. (Ro 9:23)

God’s purpose in all this is ultimately to glorify Himself by revealing His amazing nature. (Ro 9:22) He could do it all differently and save everyone from themselves, but the end result would evidently not be as glorious. He’s doing it all perfectly.

The key to resolving one of the deepest spiritual mysteries, reconciling God’s sovereignty with Man’s free will, evidently lies in the depravity of Man, the puzzle piece most of us overlook. God isn’t unloving or unjust to let us do our own thing, and nothing obligates Him to override everyone’s natural will. His choice to intervene and only quicken and transform some of us isn’t unfair, it’s pure mercy. (Ro 9:16) Fairness is letting us all go to Hell.

God has an awesome plan in allowing sin (Mt 11:25-26), and He’s always in perfect control of it. (Ep 1:11) Exactly what it will all look like in the end remains to be seen, but I expect it will be amazing, like everything else He does. In seeing all of life from God’s perspective, we can give thanks always for all things with joy(Ep 5:20)

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Chambering

There’s an intrinsic wisdom in God’s instruction that’s easy to miss. What may seem like arbitrary, antiquated rules are divine insights that protect us and position us for blessing.

For example, Scripture forbids chambering (Ro 13:13), co-habitation1, sharing the same bed like husband and wife without the formal commitment.

If anything is selfish, acting like we’re married without getting married is. It’s saying, “I like being with you, but I’m not so sure about you; you’re still on trial. I’m not in for the long haul just yet; I might find something better.” This certainly isn’t love.

We might rationalize and say we’re saving on rent and utilities while we make a trial run, but how is this helpful? Living together can’t show us what a committed relationship’s like because that’s not what we have; we can’t see what that’s like until we’re actually in one.

When we invest deeply without the foundation of trust grounded in a formal marriage commitment, we’re building our house on the sand. (Mt 7:26) We force upon ourselves the unnatural and awkward process of sharing expenses and responsibilities as business partners without a contract, rather than in the permanent, God-ordained synergy and interdependence of marriage.

And as we normalize halfhearted commitment in cohabitation limbo, we’re preparing ourselves more for divorce than for the devotion and security of marriage. Without a sure foundation, when (not if) difficulty comes, the stress and strain of life can easily overwhelm and destroy a relationship. (Mt 7:27)

And while we’re doing this to ourselves, by default we’re limiting our freedom to find stable, permanent relationships; each year invested with someone who’s unwilling to make a formal commitment is lost, one less year we have in this short life to become one with another. (Ge 2:24)

And if it doesn’t work out, it’s really no less difficult to disentangle ourselves and get out of harmful, dysfunctional, transient relationships without doing even more damage to our hearts in the process. We simply aren’t designed to live this way.

If our partner isn’t going to be our husband or wife, and someone else is, aren’t we defrauding our true spouse while we experiment with someone else? Until we’re actually married to the person we’re living with, that’s the chance we’re taking with the most important relationship on earth. (Ep 5:24-26)

God calls us to purity in all our relationships (1Ti 5:2), not to using each other for our own pleasure; the essence of any healthy relationship is in the giving, not the taking. (Ac 20:35) Leveraging extended family and community to vet potential mates is much wiser than yielding to chemistry and convenience; those who know and love us can almost always see what’s best for us. (Ep 5:21)

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The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage: Jay, M; The New York Times, April 14, 2012.

Him Will I Confess

Christ says whoever confesses Him before others, He will also confess before His Father in Heaven (Mt 10:32); and whoever denies Him before others, He will also deny before His Father. (Mt 10:33) We either belong to both God the Father and the Son, or to neither; we cannot have one without the other. (Jn 17:10)

The word confess is from the Greek homologeo, meaning to speak the same thing, to be in agreement. Christ claims as His own those who agree with what He did and said, who are willing to stand with Him against the world; He’s ashamed of (Mk 8:38) and disowns everyone else. (Mt 7:23) Our eternal welfare hinges on what we think of Christ: there’s no middle ground.

Confessing Christ, agreeing with Him, is thus to find Christ, to belong to Him and obey Him. To know Him is to love Him supremely, to cling to Him above all else (Mt 13:45-46), to esteem Him exceedingly precious (1Pe 2:7), and to agree with Him that this world’s system is evil. (Jn 7:7) This implies a willingness to give up everything for Him. (Lk 14:33) We cannot have Christ and hold on to the world: He doesn’t give us this option. (Mt 10:39)

It’s a lie that we can be safe in God while loving this world (1Jn 2:15); to have Him we must let go of the world (Mk 10:21-22), we must be willing to count all things but loss for Christ. (Php 3:8) If we’re still focused on this life, if the temporal is our constant preoccupation rather than the eternal, if we’re denying His name as a manner of life for earthly benefits, then we haven’t found Him yet (Lk 14:26); we’re still His enemies, headed for destruction (Php 3:18-19), accursed. (1Co 16:22)

The world so hates Christ and His way (Jn 15:18) it moves them to despise those who know Him. (1Co 4:10) But my question to the world is this: What do you have that’s better than Christ? What fault do you find in Him? (Jn 18:38) Based on what standard? Don’t you mock because you’ve no rational defense for your hatred?

Though God’s given us all assurance in the historical fact of Christ’s Resurrection, the world blindly rejects its only treasure, the only One Who can satisfy our longing for perfection, beauty, significance, and purpose. (Col 2:3) Apart from Christ, the world has nothing worth having; of this I’m absolutely certain.

Being friends with the world makes us God’s enemy (Ja 4:4); yet from that darkness we can’t help it find the light. When knowing God is the most important thing to us, when we’re crying after knowledge, then we’ll find Him (Je 29:13) and be able to help others do so. (Ac 26:18) He rewards all who diligently seek Him. (He 11:6)

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Having Escaped

In believing on Christ, we’ve escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust(2Pe 1:4) This isn’t merely a possibility, it’s reality — already done.

Corruption (impurity, instability, disorder) occurs as we pursue lust (intense desire inconsistent with God’s Law). (Ja 1:14-15) Christ, in delivering us from both the penalty and dominion of sin (Ro 6:14), is giving us a new nature that delights in His law (2Co 5:17), so we no longer give ourselves to violating it.  It doesn’t mean we never sin; it means we’re continuing to grow in holiness as He performs His work in us. (Php 1:6)

Lust moves us to try to satisfy our craving for pleasure, intimacy, beauty, excellence and significance outside of God, as if we’ll find our authentic inner selves apart from Him. But our real self is who God’s designed us to be, perfect in every respect, and we can only realize the potential He’s designed into us as we cleave to Him. If we pursue anything else, we lose all. (1Co 3:15)

Since the purpose of God’s Law is to produce love, a clean conscience, and genuine faith (1Ti 1:5), departing from God’s Way, giving in to unlawful passions, tends to produce the opposite, producing the harmful effects of lawlessness: corruption. But walking in the light, pursuing and enjoying the living God, beholding Him, transforms us into the glorious being He’s destined us to be. (2Co 3:18)

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Corrupting the Word

At 19 years old I “felt called” to the ministry, and bailed on a prestigious military career to pursue full-time Christian service. But marrying a contentious, angry woman (Pr 21:19) immediately disqualified me (1Ti 3:11), and so my struggle to serve began.

Looking back, I see providence in my suffering; my supposed “call” was inconsistent with scripture: there’s no office of pastor in God’s church, and somehow I’ve always known being paid to teach God’s Word is unhealthy at best. Once our wallet is tied to our teaching, it’s impossible to be unbiased.

Scripture agrees, forbidding anyone tasked with objectivity to receive a gift of any kind. (De 16:19) Only God knows the human heart: even in the best of us, the prospect of gain or loss corrupts our motives and blinds us. (Ex 23:8) We can’t be objective while being rewarded for bias.

Violating this principle enables reprobates to use religion to manipulate others for personal gain (2Pe 2:3), corrupting spiritual instruction (2Co 2:17) and fostering pernicious, broken religious institutions, tempting us to speak evil of the way of truth (2Pe 2:2); God never intended His kingdom to work like this.

In God’s economy, no one’s motivated to use religion to promote themselves. (1Pe 5:2) In God’s temple system, Levites comprise a priestly supreme civil court (De 17:8-9), supported by obligatory tithes and offerings, sharing among themselves what comes in. (De 18:8) They have no choice in their role (De 18:1), no legislative or executive powers, and ultimately depend on God’s people being blessed in obeying God’s Law from the heart. The design makes priests economically vulnerable when people aren’t genuinely righteous, motivating religious leaders to humbly teach the whole counsel of God, and to encourage all to obey it. (De 17:11)

Similarly in the church, as God designed it, there’s no dependence on paid clergy for spiritual health. Instead, brothers check each other’s teaching (1Co 14:29-31) as equals in God (1Co 11:3), and believers come together to edify one another as we pursue Christ together. No elite, educated group is the gatekeeper of truth (1Ti 3:15); no one’s income depends on tickling itching ears (2Ti 4:3), and no one has any spiritual control over another. (Mt 23:8)

God’s not arbitrary in His design, and it’s always good (Ps 119:10-11); it’s ultimately fatal to depart from it (Pr 21:16), and life to find Him in it. (Jn 10:10)

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Abound in Hope

Lately things have been rough at work; I’ve been cringing when my phone signals a new email, suspecting bad news or a political trap to sort through. I fight the sense of worry, anxiety, but emotions are hard to control. They reveal beliefs in the context of life; by observing our feelings we can tell what we really believe; they reveal our faith.

I’ve not been filled with joy; I’ve not been abounding in hope; so, I’ve been living in denial of God’s faithfulness, that whatever happens will turn out for my good and God’s glory. (Ro 8:28) I’ve had no peace, no rest in my spirit (Php 4:6-7), struggling with fear, not trusting. This isn’t where I’m supposed to live (He 13:5-6); it’s contrary to the gospel. (Ga 2:14)

But the God of hope calls me, to fill me with all joy and peace in believing, that I may abound in hope through the power of the Holy Ghost. (Ro 15:13) There is then a connection between abounding in hope, and believing God unto joy and peace.

It’s not that I will never suffer or be in trouble (2Co 1:8); I’m to believe the world is unable to harm me spiritually; nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ (Ro 8:38-39); no matter what comes I will always be more than a conqueror through the grace of God. (Ro 8:37) 

I will overcome (1Jn 5:4), because Christ overcame (Jn 16:33), and He will do so again in me. (Col 1:27) This is all the hope I need: in the end, I will be found a good and faithful servant. (Mt 25:23)

I believe God will help me live for Him; He will work in me to seek His face until my dying day (Jud 24) … for this is what He’s always been about in me. It’s His work (1Co 1:30), and He will continue to perform it until the day of Christ. (Php 1:6) Of this I am confident … I believe … and the truth of His Word is producing hope in me, even as I write it out.

How about you? Are you abounding in hope? To continue building up our faith (Jud 1:20-21) is to find more and more hope, to the anchoring of our souls (He 6:19) … ’till we’re abounding in hope through the power of God.

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Rightly Dividing

Some claim we can prove anything from Scripture, but God tells us to rightly divide the word of truth (2Ti 2:15), implying there’s a wrong, deceitful way to handle it. (2Co 4:2)

If all scripture is God’s Word, given by inspiration (2Ti 3:16), then we can’t pick and choose proof texts to prove a point while contradicting other verses; if our thesis is inconsistent with any portion of the Word of God, we haven’t proved anything.

The nature of language is that it is often imprecise; words have different connotations in different contexts, so we must carefully consider both the local and global context of Scripture when wrestling with any particular text. God generally says things in many different ways, so when looking at one context on a topic, compare scripture with scripture and look carefully at related contexts, counter examples and proof texts. In theology, a text out of context is a pretext. Just because a word can mean a certain thing, doesn’t mean it does mean this in a given context.

We must also learn to reason correctly, to derive insight and wisdom from truth, leading us to more truth. (Lk 12:28) This is a learned skill, and not so common among us. We tend to feel more than we think, leaving our theology — our knowledge and beliefs about God — shallow and fragile.

I find wholesome theology a rare thing; I’ve never yet read a doctrinal statement which did not, in my view, evidently violate some portion of the Word of God. I could certainly be wrong, most likely am somewhere, and would love to know where so I could correct it. But I’m not surprised at finding so little understanding of God in religion. So few seek to know Him as He is. (Php 2:21)

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The Voice of Strangers

God’s people hear His voice and follow Him (Jn 10:27), but do we also hear other voices which are not of God? If so, how do we tell the difference?

Hose Head Nebula, Hubble

To be clear, we aren’t referring to an audible voice, but to an inner sense or witness in our spirit that God’s trying to guide us or teach us something. Thinking the enemy can’t try to imitate God like this underestimates him, and implies any kind of impression or leading we receive must be from God.

But Jesus taught that other spiritual beings will also be speaking to us, trying to get us to follow them, and that we’ll know the difference instinctively. (Jn 10:5) But if we’re desperate to hear a “word from God,” we might override our instincts and fall pray to the enemy’s leading.

So, how do we know?

Simple, just like Jesus explained: if we don’t instinctively know God is speaking with us, then He isn’t. If we’re able to wonder if it might not be God, or ask, “Who are you?” then we don’t know it’s God and we should flee: ignore the impression, or voice, or leading, or whatever it is. We don’t need it, and we shouldn’t be looking for it.

If we need clear direction from God we should ask in faith for wisdom (Ja 1:5); seeking counsel from others and the Word, and then walk it out using all the wisdom we have, trusting He’s working out His will in us. (Php 2:13)

If we need direct revelation, God will speak to us clearly, and there will be no doubt about it. Satan comes as an angel of light to deceive (2Co 11:14), but the voice of God is unmistakable, let’s not settle for a counterfeit.

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