Heap it Up Mountain High

11 Apr

J. Gresham Machen:

“There may be some foul spot in our lives; the kind of thing that the world never forgives, the kind of thing, at any rate, for which we who know all can never forgive ourselves. But what care we whether the world forgives, or even whether we can forgive ourselves, if God forgives, if God has received us by the death of His Son?

If we could appeal to God’s approval as ours by right, how bravely we should boast—boast in the presence of a world of enemies! If God knows that we are right, what care we for the blame of men? Such boasting, indeed, can never be ours. But we can boast in what God has done. Little care we whether our sin be thought unpardonable or no, little interested are we in the exact calculation of our guilt. Heap it up mountain high, yet God has removed it all.

I know not,’ the Christian says, ‘what my guilt may be; one thing I know: Christ loved me and gave Himself for me.’”


Necessary but not enough

11 Apr

Matt Perman:

“God’s statement that he desires mercy and not sacrifice is a great passage, in other words, on the importance of social action and meeting physical needs. This is especially clear from the tie with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan’s actions to meet the man’s physical needs are called “compassion” (Luke 10:33) and “mercy” (Luke 10:37). Jesus also often had compassion on the crowds, resulting in meeting their physical needs (Matthew 14:14; 9:35-36). To be a merciful person necessarily includes being on the lookout to meet physical needs.

But there is something even deeper in Matthew 9:13. When Jesus says “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” there, he gives it as the reason and foundation for why he is interacting with sinners. For he immediately adds: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

At the heart of what Jesus is saying is this: True compassion involves not just taking action to meet people’s needs, but doing this even for the unworthy. “I desire mercy” does not simply mean “do good to those who do good to you.” Jesus is defining true compassion as having love for sinful,unworthy people at its very essence. What the Pharisees didn’t get is that when God calls us to have compassion on people, he doesn’t restrict it to apparently “worthy” people. Love that does not love the unworthy is actually not true love at all. That’s why the call to love one’s enemies is central, not an aside, to the biblical ethic of love (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36; Romans 12:19-21). True compassion has compassion even on sinners, those who have failed, and even one’s enemies.

Which is, of course, all of us (something else the Pharisees didn’t get).

This is why Jesus came to earth. He came because he is a loving, compassionate God, which means not simply that he does good for those who do good, but that he also seeks to rescue those who have done evil. That’s the true meaning of love. That’s Jesus’ point here. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came to call not the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).

This is also the meaning of John 3:16. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” That is, God’s love is the kind of love that gives utterly sacrificially even for the welfare of sinners–those who, as John puts it here, are in danger of perishing.

Seeking the welfare of unworthy — demonstrated in action — is part of the very definition of God’s love.

This is why social action is not enough. Love for others will and must manifest itself in meeting people’s concrete, tangible needs for food, shelter, companionship, and purpose in life. But beyond all of these things, we have a more fundamental, even deeper need: we are estranged from God because of our sin. True compassion does not stop at meeting people’s physical and social needs, therefore. It goes all the way and seeks to meet their spiritual need for reconciliation with God as well.”

Read the rest

Exegetical Matters: The Book of Acts, ‘Having Favour With All the People’

8 Apr

Is there any example in Scripture where the church is distinguished by its practical, loving concern for its unbelieving neighbors?

Very early in the book of Acts, Luke begins telling us about the life and ministry of the early church.  In Acts 2:44ff, we begin to see their sacrificial concern for one another.  It is possible we also may get a hint of their sacrificial and loving concern for the people of the city in which they lived. 

We read,

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

The phrase to focus on here is where Luke says they were ‘having favor with all the people.’  What does he mean by that exactly?

In his book, Exemplary Life, Andy Chambers comments on this passage, 

“The Greek word for ‘favor’ (charin) can be translated ‘grace,’ ‘kindness,’ or ‘good will.’ Translating the phrase ‘having favor with all the people’…raises the following question: Who was showing favor to whom – the church to the city of Jerusalem or the city to the church? Most English translations and commentators see the church experiencing the good will of the city of Jerusalem, although a few recognize both possibilities. The preposition with (pros) can also be translated ‘toward,’ making it difficult to state with certainty what Luke means beyond what the context suggests.

Two clues in the context can be put forward as evidence for seeing the church as the recipient of Jerusalem’s good will. First, several statements in surrounding narratives indicate the positive disposition of the people of Jerusalem towards the church (Acts 4:21; 5:13-16, 26). Second, Luke’s next statement that people were being saved daily fits with the positive attitude of the people toward the church. However, neither of these clues requires ‘pros’ to be translated with. One could just as easily argue that the surrounding notes about Jerusalem’s good will call for seeing Acts 2:47 as an affirmation by Luke that the reverse was true too. Favor flowed from the church towards Jerusalem, and the church’s concern for others was used by God to bring salvation to the people of Jerusalem.

Rhetorical and linguistic reasons suggest that the phrase should be understood as the church having good will towards the city of Jerusalem. All of the preceding statements are part of Luke’s strategy of using the rhetorical exemplum in his portrait of the Jerusalem church, which focuses on the exemplary behavior of believers. They gave generously. They met daily. They ate together with glad and sincere hearts. They praised God. And they had good will toward all the people. It makes sense to see Luke’s emphasis on the positive behavior of the church continuing, rather than shift toward the attitude in Jerusalem, which he waits until Acts 5:13-16 to describe.

Additionally, there are strong linguistic grounds for translating ‘pros’ as ‘toward’ rather than ‘with.’ The word charis appears with the preposition pros only here in the New Testament, but the pair occurs six times in Josephus and three times in Philo. In each occurrence the object of the preposition pros is in the accusative case and is always the person towards whom the good will is directed. In Acts 2:47 the object of pros in the accusative case is ‘all the people.’ Thus, the people of Jerusalem are the ones toward whom the good will of the church is directed.

Luke’s exemplary portrait makes clear that not only did the believers love one another, they also loved their neighbors (Lev. 19:18, Luke 10:27), the people of Jerusalem. God’s grace changed their lives, and it caused them to love the city where they lived and to practice hospitality toward her people.”

Andy Chambers, Exemplary Life: A Theology of Church Life in Acts, p. 79,80

Thinking Out Loud about the Church and Mercy Ministry

8 Apr

Sometimes when people talk about the responsibility of church leaders to help the church care for the poor, they think what’s being said is that church leaders have the responsibility to organize institutional strategies and programs for the church to reach out to the poor in their community. 

I don’t think however that is necessarily true. 

I know it is not true at least for me.  It should be obvious.  But if a church as an institution never has a feeding program or clothing distribution center or an orphanage, it still can be a church.  Now, if the church as a church, stops preaching God’s Word and the gospel, it is no longer a church. 

Where communication may break down a bit however, is that I don’t think that principle means the leadership of the church has no responsibility when it comes to helping Christians care for the poor. When Jesus told us to go and make disciples, he taught us to teach them to obey all that God’s commanded, and therefore, part of our responsibility as disciple-makers in the church is to help the church learn to obey what the Scripture teaches about our individual responsibility to the those in need.  We have a responsibility after all to help our people learn to live righteous lives, and God’s Word makes clear that part of living a righteous life is having a concern for the poor. 

While I do not doubt that the writers of Scripture could look at a church that has no organized way of caring for the physically needy and still see it as a church, I do doubt that these same writers would look at an individual who says that he understands the gospel and yet has no concern for the needy, and especially of course needy believers and think they are actually a Christian. 

Ken Jones has said, “If the church never offers a single hot meal but preaches the gospel, then she is true to her calling.”

I don’t really have a problem with that statement, I don’t think, given that he’s talking about the church as an institution.  

But I just wonder, if the same could be said about an individual Christian. Could we say of an individual Christian, as long as he says the right things, but never actually moves out in love to those in need, he is true to his calling? 

I don’t think so. 

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to him, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things need for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him.”

Now, I know people say that’s just talking about other Christians in need. O.k., sure. (Though if everyone who made this argument loved Christians like this, I don’t think we would really have much of an argument at all.) 

But how about this then, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…For you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?”

It may be helpful I think in conversations about the church and the poor to recognize that not everyone who is saying the church is not required to help the unbelieving poor means by that it is acceptable for individual Christians to be compassionless or to opt out of helping those in need. On the other hand it would also be helpful to recognize that not everyone who says leaders of the church need to be concerned about helping their congregation think through how to show Christ’s love to the poor means by that it is required for the church as an institution or organization to have programmed mercy ministries.    

In other words, sometimes when people seem to be saying the church should do less for the poor, they don’t actually mean individual Christians should stop caring as much for those who are in need but instead that the church as an institution is unique and exists to express God’s love and mercy in a unique way through the proclamation of God’s Word and the worship of God.  On the other hand, sometimes when people seem to be saying the church should be doing more for the poor, they don’t actually mean primarily that the church as an institution should begin all sorts of different programmed social justice kinds of ministry, but instead that the individual Christians within the church need to be pushed and encouraged and discipled to care deeply for and love sacrificially those who are hurting around them. 

Helps towards Appreciating your Adoption: part 1

8 Apr

It has been said that if you want to understand how well a person appreciates what it means to be a Christian, you need to see how much he appreciates being able to call God Father.

I am talking about the doctrine of adoption.

We can call God Father because He has adopted us into His family.  And there are some who would say this is the greatest privilege we experience as believers. 

Every blessing God gives us is big.

It is wonderful to be chosen. It is something else to be declared righteous. And you can see why some would say it is something even bigger to be adopted. 

Yet of course, we don’t always enjoy it as well as we should. 

One simple reason we don’t appreciate our adoption is because in our hearts we assume we deserve it.  In order to appreciate what it means to be adopted we have to begin by remembering that we are not naturally God’s sons and daughters. 

I think some people fail to appreciate what it means to be adopted because we almost think of the entire world as being naturally the sons of God. However, when you look at God’s Word, you find that while the Bible speaks of us as humans being born in the image of God, it rarely if ever talks about us after the fall as being born sons of God, and it never talks about God as being the father of all men in the same way without exception.

The fact that the Bible talks about God for adopting us as believers wouldn’t mean much if we were born naturally God’s children. You don’t adopt your own children that are born from your own flesh. When my daughters were born from my wife, I didn’t need to stand before a judge and adopt them because they were born from my wife and from myself.  

We can take this a step further.

In order to appreciate what Paul says about salvation, you need to remember that because of Adam’s sin, you were born God’s enemy. It’s almost like you were born the opposite of God’s children. You were born a part of a family of people that hated God. All men by nature belong to a family that is against God’s family and they do the desires of a Father who is described as a liar and a murderer from the beginning.

That is why when the Scriptures talk about us naturally being born a child of anything, it says things like you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once lived…and were by nature, bold print, children of wrath, of God’s anger, like the rest of mankind.

So the picture you have to have in your mind as you think about adoption is of a group of people whom God doesn’t owe anything. These are not His own children. These are people who have no rights on God. This is a group of people who basically hate God and do everything they can to resist Him.

And what adoption is, adoption is the act where God takes children like that, and chooses to officially and legally, make children like that, part of his own family, forever.  What adoption is, it is the legal device, where a person leaves one family and enters another. And so when the Bible talks about adoption it is talking about where God once and for all takes a person from the family of the devil and makes him part of the family of God, giving them all the rights and privileges that go along with being one of his children.

We need to take time to enjoy that. 

Just try to enjoy the fact that you have God as a Father.

I don’t know if you have ever gone to hear someone famous speak or sing.

Can you imagine going to hear someone talk and you walk up to them and say hello, my name is … and he looks at you, and he says, I know you, yeah, you are…. How would you feel at that moment? You would feel important.

God the creator of the Universe is the one who makes everyone else look small and when you walk up to God, when you come into His presence, He doesn’t only know you, He calls you His child, He calls you His son or daughter.

There is no privilege in your life that is bigger than this. I mean, not only do you call God Father, He calls you son or daughter.

You may know someone in your town who had a dad who was important and there might have been times where you looked at this person and thought I wish I had this father, because man that father is important, respected, I wish I were part of his family. There is no father like our father. He is the most ancient father. He is the most wise father. He is the most loving father. He is the most righteous father. Our father has never made a mistake in the history of the universe. There has never been a time where our father did something that was not correct to do. He always knows what is best for you. He owns everything. He will never fail.  And he never dies. This is your father. And if that doesn’t grip you, you need to get on your knees and ask God to help you see how big this really is, to cause you to be amazed by the fact that you are adopted into His family and that you are His child now.

Exegetical Matters: Galatians, ‘Only Remember the Poor.’

7 Apr

It is nice to consider the needs of the poor, I am sure, but is it biblical?  As a human, obviously, I should care about people made in the image of God, but do I have any special responsibilities as a Christian?  Or, I suppose, a better way to ask it, is it actually a biblically important priority? 

I am not intending to answer that question here.  

But I did think I could to point to a particular passage that needs to be considered. At least, that I need to consider. 

Galatians 2:10. 

Here Paul tells of his meeting with James and Peter and John who he says gave him the right hand of fellowship and encouraged his ministry to the Gentiles. He concludes, “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” It’s that statement in particular that is worth at least discussing. It seems significant that Paul ends his summary of his conversation with the leaders of the early church with this charge to remember the poor.

Now, many would say this refers to the collection for the saints who were suffering in Jerusalem. And that certainly could be true, though I don’t see here, that he explicitly says that. We have to add that in from what we know of the historical context. Even then of course, if that is what he is referring to, it does indicate the importance of sacrificial love and concern for other believers who are having difficulties and that is something that is both convicting and unquestionably important biblically.

But, as Andrew Wilson points out, Bruce Longenecker in his book Remember the Poor argues otherwise. 

Wilson summarizes his argument.  

“…the Jerusalem apostles’ exhortation to Paul was not aimed at him (as in, “please remember to fundraise for us”), but at his target audience amongst Gentiles (as in, “please make sure the Gentiles who become part of God’s people continue to live as the Jewish prophets have always urged us to, and remember the poor in their communities”). This, Longenecker argues, would not have come naturally in a world where there was a marked lack of concern for the needy amongst Gentiles, in contrast to that which existed amongst the Jews.”

I am interested in reading what Longenecker has to say, but for now, Wilson points out the following as several of the reasons that he finds the argument that Paul was simply or specifically referring to the poor in Jerusalem unconvincing. 

1.)Though the view that the poor referred specifically to the poor in Jerusalem became popular in the 4th century, Tertullian, Origen and Athanasius,along with all interpreters in the first three centuries of Christianity, took it to mean the poor without geographical restriction. He writes, “Six texts from Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius and Aphrahat suggest that, at least until the middle of the fourth century, the ‘poor’ of Gal 2:10 was not thought to refer to members of the early Jesus-movement in Jerusalem. By the middle of the fourth century, this had begun to changed [sic], as testified to by Ephrem, Jerome, and John Chrysostom … It is far simpler, however, to imagine that ‘the poor” of Gal 2:10 was ubiquitously interpreted throughout the earliest centuries without geographical specificity for good reason.”

2.) Would James have really urged that very poor communities across the Mediterranean basin send the little they have to support the poor in his own city?

3.)It seems somewhat strange that Paul would have wondered whether the offering would have been acceptable for the saints if it had been suggested to him by these leaders of the church in the first place. (Romans 15:30,31)

4.)Acts 11 indicates that the offering for Jerusalem was prompted by a prophecy from Agabus. Of course, I suppose that Peter and James could have been encouraging him in this ministry. But, it is possible at least to see why some might think, given the fact there was already was a prophecy in this regard, that it’s possible Peter, James and John were talking about something else.

In addition to these reasons for thinking Paul and the apostles were speaking more generally, others have suggested the following as well.

5.)If Paul is referring to the specific collection being made for the poor believers in Jerusalem, it is interesting that he doesn’t elaborate at all on the implications of that for the Galatian believers themselves. He doesn’t speak anywhere here of their need to contribute to this offering.

6.)When Paul does speak specifically and clearly about the collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem in other places, he nowhere speaks of it as if was influenced or being the outcome of his meeting with James and Peter and John in Jerusalem.

On Fathering

6 Apr

The very first responsibility Paul gives fathers is a negative one.

In Ephesians Paul says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger…” In Colossians, he says something similar, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, lest they become discouraged…”

I just want you to note what this shows us about how the gospel changes parenting.

If I say to someone who doesn’t know the gospel that this person over here needs to obey you completely, what would be the typical way for that person to respond, at least in their heart? I think a typical response would be to think that’s awesome and to begin thinking about the different ways you can use that person to do what you want. We respond like that because no matter how nice we may appear on the outside, we are by nature as human beings, extremely self-centered and that is true of the best of us.

Our primary core interest is self-interest.

And this is why time and time again when a person gets into a position of power and especially if there are no limits on that power, he ends up abusing that power. How many stories have we heard of men who before they were in positions of power were working for the good of their country changing direction once they were given power over that country and using all the power they had been given for their own good. That is the typical way people use power, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s very surprising and those people usually become heros who stand out because we are all surprised that they didn’t use power to pursue their self-interest because that’s kind of just what we expect to happen in this world.

It is very typical for us to take power and use it for our own interests. If you have any doubt about that, you can just think about the way many fathers father in cultures act when they are given unlimited power over their families. Does this position of power and respect make them more caring and servant-hearted towards their families? Not usually. How common is it to find lazy, self-seeking fathers who are demanding respect that their actions don’t deserve? These kind of men are everywhere.

And because of that, the world’s response to these kind of abuses of power and authority is to try to attack the very idea of power and authority. That is why you see in the United States as an example that fathers no longer really have the kind of respect in their families that they do in many places in Africa, and if men ask for that kind of respect they usually are looked on as dictators automatically.

That’s not quite the way it is here in Africa, yet.

But I am sure that kind of attitude is coming, if you just wait for it. What we see in Ephesians and Colossians however is that the gospel’s way of dealing with this problem is radically different. Because the gospel doesn’t deal with abuses of power and authority by getting rid of the idea of authority but instead by challenging and changing the way people in authority view their position of authority.

As an example just take what we find in Ephesians 6, where Paul talks to fathers. You see in verses 1 through 3 that Paul does not minimize the child’s responsibility to his parents. In fact, he very clearly tells children that they are responsible for obeying their parents in everything as a way of honoring the Lord and he encourages them that this is something that pleases God by pointing them to the promises God attaches to these commands. But what makes this passage so different is that Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on in Ephesians 6:4 to challenge fathers not to use the authority they have been given in self-centered ways by telling them that they too have a responsibility before God and that is not to use their positions of power in ways that provoke their children to anger or discouragement.

What that means is that when Paul tells us that our children are to obey us completely, we should not respond by thinking to ourselves this is awesome that God has given me slaves for eighteen years, how much can I get out of them but instead by thinking, wow, this is a real responsibility, oh God, help me not to use this power for my own selfish interest but for my child’s long term good.

Now can you imagine if parents really were like that? Fathers, especially?

What would happen to this country? This is part of by the way, why I am convinced that if you really want to make an impact on Africa and change Africa, you should be first and foremost committed to the local church and to the proclamation of the gospel and especially to the hard work of making disciples who are applying the gospel to their lives.

You know one reason why we have so many leaders in positions of power in Africa who are using those positions of power for their own good instead of to serve the people? It’s because we have so many fathers who are setting that kind of example in their homes. Where you have self-centered fathers and mothers, you have self-centered leaders and governments. If you want a different kind of government in your country, you need to start by having different kind of leaders in your homes.

Leaders who take this first responsibility Paul gives seriously, to not parent in such a way that makes it easier for their children to sin. 


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