Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Confessing Your Sins

Dear professing Christians, there is power over sin only in confession. You cannot overcome sin through different means because there are no other means. Don't fool yourself. If you hide the horrible things you have done from the people you have hurt, God cannot and will not bring you healing, no matter how hard you try to ease your broken conscience. I bet you've heard about "repentance." Well, true biblical repentance from sin is our subject today. The Greek word for repentance, "metanoia," means "to change your mind." But when it is applied to God, it means to turn away from a chronic lifestyle of sin to a chronic lifestyle of righteousness. And it isn't only a change of a mind-attitude, it's a change in the direction of one's life. What I mean to say is, a true Christian will display a chronic lifestyle of righteousness through repentance, not a chronic lifestyle of sin. Paul says, "You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness" (Romans 6:18). The verse that I think best describes the effects of true biblical repentance is 1 John 3:9, which says, "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning because he has been born of God." 

Now these verses don't mean we as Christians are somehow sinless and that we can't fall, for "though the righteous man falls seven times, he rises again" (Proverbs 24:16). It means that true believers cannot commit sin without feeling such a tremendous weight of guilt on their conscience they just want to confess what they have done (see Acts 2:37-38; 1 John 1:8-10). The confession just wants to fly out from their lips. They cannot keep it in. They don't want to keep it in just to save their reputation. They have to confess. That's repentance. They cannot live in a habitual lifestyle of sin because God makes them confess. This is what it means to be "born of God," to receive a new will. Confession is the doorway to repentance. Do not be deceived! There cannot be repentance without open confession to the one you've wronged! Only those who "openly confessed their evil deeds" received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:18). Only those who "confessed their sins" were baptized by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16). There is a reason the first words that came out of Jesus' mouth when he started his ministry were "The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel! (Mark 1:15). Only when a sinner repents and confesses their sin does God forgive their sin, for it is written, "If my people...repent from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin" (2 Chronicles 7:14). You know, some professing Christians are great at words, but they fail in action. They do all the talk, but they cannot walk the walk. But if you are a true Christian, and if you are led by the Spirit, you will not stay in your lifestyle of sin and you will repent. I don't know about you, but I feel sick when I roll in the mire of sin. I can't live bathing in mire for long because God brings me to repentance. But if you can live in the mire without any prickle of conscience, and if God does not bring you to true biblical repentance which involves confession, then I sincerely doubt your Christianity. Don't try to weasel out of the confession aspect; you only fool yourself and shun your only cure. "A tree is recognized by its fruit" (Matthew 12:33).

Sin kills. Sin hurts. Sin has broken my heart many a time. I am sin. I am a sinner. You are sin. You are a sinner. You know, we tend to think of "sin" as some outer thing attacking us, but we fail to realize that WE ARE SIN. Sin isn't outside of you, it is you! You are the sinner. That is why sinners find it a reason to rejoice at the gospel of forgiveness, at the good news of God's grace. In a real sense, God saves you from yourself, sinner. God has provided the means for forgiveness, and it is Jesus Christ. Only one drop of his blood is enough to pay for the sins of every human being who comes to him in repentance. What he did for you is MORE than enough. So be reconciled to him. Start by confessing your sins to those whom you have wronged, and pray to be reconciled in their eyes. I know, sometimes your sins can be so bad that men will not be able to forgive you, and you should be prepared for that. But confess anyway. I want to tell you that sometimes it won't turn out as you had hoped, but you will still set yourself free. Sometimes people cannot forgive because the effects of sin will remain forever (for example, God forgave David's adultery, but God still killed David's child as punishment for impregnating the woman). You must know that you will reap what you sow, but you will be forgiven by God, and you will live at peace with yourself, and perhaps even with those whom you've wronged. Take the leap of faith. You will pay the price for what you've done, but you will gain your soul. It is worth it.

I want to leave you with the prayer of Solomon, who understood the connection between true biblical repentance and forgiveness. "If they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, 'We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly' and if they turn back to you with all their heart and all their soul in the land of their captivity where they are taken, and pray toward you...may your eyes be opened...may you hear the prayer your servant prays" (2 Chronicles 6:18-20). So, servant of God, I urge you to pray to God. Confess. Repent. I exhort you to confess, and God will heal you from your captivity and, if he wills, reconcile you with those whom you have wronged.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone

When I first started this blog I wanted it to be about history proper, but I am slowly beginning to see the shortcomings of looking only into the past. Therefore, I want to be a little less formal today and write about our present everyday situation as believers. After all, history involves us. We are historians making history. We are history in action, so whenever I write anything about humanity, I am writing history broadly defined. To the matter, I have been struggling a lot lately on doing the will of God in my everyday life. While it is so very easy to write long historical praises to God, it is much harder to actually do his will in my everyday life. It is funny how I cling close to God in happy times and then shy away from God in the moments I need him the most. Truly, "for better or for worse" applies to all Christians married to the Lord. King David, our historical example for today, humbly understood this reality. He knew the only thing that could bring him through a day of sorrow is the grace of God. He found strength to endure suffering in the strength of his God. David was a king. He did not have to give God the glory through suffering. He could have boasted in his own riches, in his own might and strength, in battles won and enemies overcome. But he was too wise for such folly. He saw what only true Christians like you and I see. He knew God is the true King, to whom all power on heaven and earth truly belongs. When we suffer, when we are tempted, when we feel lost and ashamed, dazed and confused, down and forgotten, let us also remember to whom power belongs. "The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son" (Hebrews 12:6).

Sing David's Hymn with me:

Psalm 62:1 Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.
2 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

3 How long will you assault me?
Would all of you throw me down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
4 Surely they intend to topple me
from my lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.

5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
8 Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

9 Surely the lowborn are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie.
If weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.
10 Do not trust in extortion
or put vain hope in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.

11 One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,
12 and with you, Lord, is unfailing love”;
and, “You reward everyone
according to what they have done.”

Friday, August 12, 2011

How to Read the Old Testament as a Christian

I want to talk to you today about reading the Old Testament as it was meant to be read. Now there are a lot of books out there on how to properly interpret the Bible, but I want to save you some time. I want to focus now on how to read the "Old Testament," the largest chunk of the Bible from Genesis to Malachi. If we want to honor God in our studies, I think we must learn how to read the Old Testament as Christians. Now I would love to teach you more about the history of the Bible, but I think a broad how to do-it-yourself guide is more beneficial for your own studies. I have met many who refuse to interpret the Old Testament writings through the way I will teach you today because they want to avoid the so-called fallacy of "Christian anachronism." If you are having this problem, I would tell you the reason I interpret the Old Testament through the "lens" of the New Testament is because I think the true purpose of the law and the prophets is Jesus himself. I ask you, did not Jesus say, "the Scriptures testify about me" (John 5:39)? After the resurrection, did not Jesus interpret "what was said in all the Scriptures about himself" (Luke 24:37)? My pastor used to say, "If you don't see Jesus on every page of Scripture, you're doing something wrong!" I think he's right. I have slowly and painfully learned that the Old Testament is really a forward looking collection of books. They are truly inspired writings, but they were never meant to stay at a stand-still, to be read on their own right for all time. I understand now that the message of the gospel is underneath the surface level understanding of the Old Testament text. There is allegory, there is typology, there is metaphor, there is Jesus. The Old Testament was meant to be read through the clear lens of what would come after it, the New Testament. It is not unwise to read an initially obscure story a second time if you know how it ends. Since you know the point of the Old Testament narrative is Christ, then read it a second time through Christ. Paul the apostle himself illustrates my point. He wrote, "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." (Romans 15:4). Paul believed the very rock Moses struck with a staff referred to Christ as the spiritual rock (see 1 Corinthians 10:4; for another example, see Galatians 4:24-26). Paul believed Christ was the true meaning of the Old Testament. Do you?

It took me a few years to digest the fact that the true purpose of the Old Testament writings and stories was to pave the way for Christianity. The Old Testament is to the New Testament like John the Baptist is to Jesus; the Old prepares the way for the New. It is true that the Old Testament is a Jewish text, but I have learned that the Old Testament was not written for a national Jewish people per se, but for "Christians"-- keep in mind I define "Christians" as both Jews and Gentiles who have embraced the message of the gospel. Many people miss Jesus in the Old Testament precisely because they don't understand this point. I have met a few of these sort at seminary, intelligent people who nevertheless fail to make the proper distinctions. They get trapped into reading the Old Testament solely through a Jewish mindset, falsely thinking they are being more faithful to the Scriptures. When I interpret Isaiah 53 or other such passages from the Old Testament as referring to Christianity, they block me in my tracks and complain, "Hold on, that's a Christian interpolation! That's not what the passage meant to the original hearers." But it is no such thing, and though the second point is a half-truth, there is a double meaning in the Old Testament texts that allows for both its original meaning and its extended meaning. Christianity is not new in God's providential plan. I have learned that Christianity is the very promise of salvation God made to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15; this is why Paul repeatedly called the message of the gospel "the promise" of Abraham (Galatians 3:16, 3:29; Romans 4:13; 9:8). I have learned that the gospel moved alongside the law and the prophets from the very beginning of God's progressive revelation. Therefore, I want you too to understand that the gospel is not a "Christian" innovation as some say; it was always a part of God's plan, but was just waiting to be revealed at the right time in history, and its revelation just so happened to be 2000 years ago. I want to share with you what I have learned from my studies and help you grow in appreciation for the Old Testament writings by reading them as a Christian. I challenge you to read them through the message of the gospel. You will read as a Christian if you see Jesus, his work and his person, in all of the Old Testament Scriptures. I want to use the book of Hosea to illustrate my point.

Case Study: The Book of Hosea

Hosea is all about the faithfulness of God. If you want to read it as a Christian, you must see the gospel in the book of Hosea. In this book God instructs Hosea the prophet to marry "a wife of whoredom" (Hosea 1:2), whose unfaithfulness to her husband would serve as an example of Israel's unfaithfulness to God. Whenever we sin against the Lord, we are like that unfaithful spouse who cheats on her husband, and then once having her fill asks for his acceptance once again. It is quite an evil cycle. All people sin, but only some, the true Christians, are truly repentant for that sin. God does not want perfection from you; he wants repentance, an attitude of godly sorrow that comes from the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). Hosea teaches us that God's patience with us is meant to bring us to repentance. The reason God takes back the unfaithful spouse is so she can be fruitful in his kingdom. God plucks her out of the dung and begins to make her a fertile soil. You are that unfaithful and exceedingly sinful spouse. You were that dung, enslaved to the elemental spirits of this world, but now you are on fertile soil, if you are Christ's, and Christ will tend to his soil. As you can see, the message of the gospel is everywhere in the book of Hosea. In fact, Hosea is the message of the gospel. We are the Church, the bride of Christ, and God is calling us to repentance and faith. Did not Jesus say, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32)? If you want to read like a Christian, see the gospel in the book of Hosea.

My pastor harps on reasoning "from the general to the particular." Well, now that we have seen Hosea as generally a "gospel structured" book, I will quote a few particular examples of the gospel in Hosea. Most of these texts are quoted by the New Testament authors, so I am not merely anachronistically reading the gospel back into the text. I am not denying the original, historical meaning to all of these texts, but I am just looking back at these texts through the lens of the New Testament.

Hosea 1:10 “Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God." Paul quotes this passage in Romans 9:26 to refer to the gospel preached to both Jews and Gentiles, the true "Israel" which is the Church.

Hosea 2:19 "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion." Paul alludes to this passage in 2 Corinthians 11:2, for we are betrothed to Christ as the people of God and are declared the "righteousness of God" through faith alone (Romans 3:22).

Hosea 6:2 "After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence." Though literally about restoration of the people of God at the time of Hosea, the ultimate meaning of this verse forms the basis of our resurrection in the resurrection of Christ. "Jesus told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47).

Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." Quoted in Matthew 2:15 during Jesus' flight to Egypt, this passage is about our salvation in Christ. We are ransomed from slavery, out of the world, and adopted as children of the kingdom of God, much like the people of Israel were led by Moses out of Egypt.

Hosea 13:14 "I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?" Quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55, this passage is ultimately about "the death of death in the death of Christ." It is about our redemption from sin and the grave in the gospel.

Hosea 14:4 "I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them." Surely this passage alludes to nothing but the love of God in the gospel, for we were by nature "children of wrath" and "once darkness but now light in the Lord" (Ephesians 2:3; 5:8).

You must understand that the Old Testament is ultimately about the gospel because Jesus Christ is the be-all and end-all of Scripture. Everything that Scripture ever was and ever will be is about Jesus. He is truly "the Word of God" made flesh (John 1:1, 14; Revelation 19:13). Therefore, if you want to read the Old Testament as a Christian, see Jesus there on every page. This is what I call reading through the hermeneutic of faith. Only then will you see Christ as the underlying meaning of stories like the Flood of Noah, because Christ is the "ark" in whom we take refuge from the waters of this world; of Joseph sold to slavery and "rising" to power in Egypt; of Moses leading the people out from slavery in Egypt as Christ leads us out from slavery to this world; of the Israelites sent to spy out the promised land of Canaan, bringing back from its fertile soil the "cluster of grapes" that is Christ (see Numbers 13); of the rock Moses struck with his staff that quenched the people's thirst as Christ quenches our spiritual thirst; of David defeating Goliath like Christ defeated this world. Time would fail me if I told you of more, because every story ever told in the Old Testament points to Christ, alludes to Christ, breathes out Christ. If you see Christ as the true meaning of all Scripture, how much greater will you exalt his name, how much greater will you love Scripture, and how much more will you appreciate the Old Testament? 

Friday, August 5, 2011

How to Read Church History as a Christian

When I think about church history, the first thing that comes to my mind is dust. Why dust, you ask? Well, I think of the many old books I need to dust off my shelf. I am not ashamed to say I have actually done a little bit of dusting this summer. I had the privilege of studying the life and story of my favorite ancient Christian, renowned African bishop St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), famous for defending the Trinity and orthodox Christianity in the midst of growing heresy and a declining Roman Empire which would eventually fall to the barbarians in 476. You may have heard of Augustine. His most famous work is by far The City of God, an apologetic work aimed to disprove the claim that Christianity was to blame for the sack of Rome in 410. However, over the past few weeks, I have pored over Augustine's most personal work, the Confessions, an autobiography of his life and journey to Christianity. It is only a 350 page book, but it literally took me over a month to read because I wanted to digest it, to empathize with it, and to truly understand it. This is how I think we should study all books (especially the Bible!). Now there are many wonderful things I could tell you about the Confessions, but for the sake of time I have chosen to write only about what I think would benefit us all. I want to write about what Augustine in the Confessions has to say about reading books as Christians. Now this is a topic very near and dear to my heart, since I would love to spend the rest of my life teaching the history of the church as a Christian.

Augustine wanted us reading his works as Christians, not as unbelievers. When unbelievers read Augustine, I do not think they can truly empathize with him because they praise not God but Augustine--his own intelligence and talents as a great "philosopher," so they say. But when we Christians read Augustine, we praise the greatness of the glory of God for giving such gifts to men. Augustine wrote, "My books...were written to serve you [God]" (Confessions IX.II.VII). He did not want his works replacing or adding to the Scriptures. He wrote, "Let those ask you, [God], for understanding who are capable of it. 'Why should they rely on me,' as if I could 'give light to anyone coming into this world?'" (Confessions XIII.II.XI). Augustine's concern was for nothing but the glory of God, for he made this motto his very own: "[Christ] must increase, I must decrease" (John 3:30). Therefore, if we want to understand Augustine or any other dusty old church history book properly, we must read as Christians, not as unbelievers. We will never properly understand the Bible or any old church history book unless we read as Christians. We need three things if we want to read as Christians in our studies:

A) The right motives
B) The right attitude (self-examination)
C) The right convictions

A) We must have the right motives. James wrote of those who have the wrong motives for prayer, "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your [selfish] pleasures" (James 4:1). I have had to struggle a lot with this one, because my motives in studying church history are not always right. I know they should be for the glory of God, but sometimes they are for my own advantage, for my own pleasures in scholarship. However, selfishness should be as far as the east is from the west when we study the Bible or church history as Christians. In other words, if you read the Bible or church history with the wrong motives, you are not reading as a Christian, and you should not expect to receive from the Lord. Augustine writes, "But what is their motive [for reading my works]? Would they share my joy when they hear how close, by your gift, I am lifted up to you, and share my prayer when they hear how far, by own own dead weight, I fall off from you? If so, to such I will open myself (Confessions X.I.V). Augustine wanted his readers to have the right motives. We too must be empathetic Christians who read great works of faith with the right motives. The glory of God must be our primary motive for studying the things of God.

B) We must have the right attitude.This one is very similar to having the right motive, only motive is why we do something, and attitude is the manner in which we do it. We must take Paul's advice and examine our attitude and approach to the study of history (2 Cor. 13:15). We must have a spirit of self-examination, not a spirit of condemnation. Augustine illustrates the point beautifully: "People want a transgressive knowledge of others' lives, but are blissfully ignorant of what might change their own. Why, anyway, should they care to hear from me about my own condition if they will not hear from you [God] about theirs? If they hear me describing myself, how can they know whether I am telling the truth...but if they are listening to you [God] about their own condition, what can they say--that the Lord is lying to them? Is there, in fact, any way they can learn about themselves except by listening to you? Whoever calls what he learns from you a lie is lying to himself" (Confessions X.I.III). By all means do not read Augustine because you want to gossip about his life. Have the right attitude, and examine your own life before examining Augustine's. See in Augustine's confessions of his own sins the way in which you must confess your own sins; you may compare your own life to his, but only in empathy and self-examination, not to exalt yourself above Augustine by thinking you are better or below Augustine by thinking you are worse. Do not compare yourself to another man. Compare yourself to God, and you will see your true shortcomings as God sees them. Examine yourself when you read and you will have the right attitude.

C) We must have the right convictions. We must interpret church history through the lens of the Scriptures as our highest authority. We must hold the Scriptures over and above every work ever written, no matter how great, whether by Augustine or even greater extra-biblical literature. We must hold to the Scriptures as the only inerrant, "God-breathed" books which are in their fullness "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Augustine wrote, "No other writings, we know, can so conquer pride, so conquer 'the foe who excuses,' the man who will not make peace with you but excuses his sins. I myself have found no other words so cleansing, to make me testify to you, to supple my stiff neck to your yoke, to make me worship you freely. May I grasp those words, my favoring Father, may I shelter under the strong canopy you provide for those sheltering under it" (Confessions XIII. V. XVII). The supremacy of the Scriptures over and above all other history books must be our firm conviction, or we will inevitably stray and neglect our own personal study of the Scriptures to our own detriment (believe me, I know this from experience and I still struggle with it).

So there you have it! Have the right motive, hold to the right attitude, and stick to the right convictions, and you are already on your way to becoming an exceptional Christian scholar. I hope you realize that none of these three are possible without a firm and steady relationship with God; you need to grow in knowledge, you need lots and lots of prayer, and you need strong support from your local Christian community. Nevertheless, if you hold to these three tenets, you will never fail.