scripture, application and experience

I think the genius of the teaching at the church we initially found to take our grandchildren, and now are a part of ourselves is its combination of scripture, emphasis on application, and getting right down to the nitty-gritty of life, where we live, our experience. And that certainly comes from the teaching gift of the senior pastor, who ably, I’m sure has mentored others, who have their own unique gifting from God in the teaching ministry of this church. And a great teaching ministry, by the way, to the children and young folks.

We really don’t need anything fancy nowadays, just a straight shot of God’s word. But when we receive that, we find not only an appeal to doctrine, but also to application and experience. The so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, gathered from John Wesley’s writings, but which Wesley himself would not have approved of, as has recently been brought to light by Methodist theologians: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, kind of correlate to this thought. But scripture not only has primacy of place, but a place all by itself. Whatever role tradition, reason, and experience have is all under scripture. Which is why I believe in what our church is seeking to do in helping us grow as disciples of Christ to become more and more like him.

When we go to scripture, we don’t have to worry about drawing this out, if we take scripture itself seriously. Scripture will ably do that for us, if we pay serious attention to it. We just take it for what it is, going through it, letting it, really God’s word do it’s work. Nothing more, nothing less. All of this in and through Jesus.

Titus: the “do good” book

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

Titus 3

If there’s one thing Christians ought to be known for, it should be for the good they do. Not for their political positions, be they left, right, moderate or something else, as far as US politics are concerned. Not over who they either voted, or didn’t vote for, either.

Don’t get me wrong. Doctrine is important, and indeed underrated in some quarters, probably in more and more places nowadays. Read the short book of Titus (link above is the entire book), and you’ll see that giving short shrift on doctrine does not pass muster as far as this little book is concerned. It is true that people, even so-called churches which don’t hold to the necessity of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead might indeed be engaged in good works. But they are no more gospel, or kingdom of God oriented than any atheist, or non-Christian religion which does the same. Doing good is good regardless. But it’s not necessarily Christian.

Notice the NIV outline of the book from the link above. Here they are in turn: “Appointing Elders Who Love What Is Good,” “Rebuking Those Who Fail to Do Good,” “Doing Good for the Sake of the Gospel,” “Saved in Order to Do Good” and “Final Remarks.” Notice how the book ends just before the final greetings and salutation:

Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives.

There are no two ways about it. We either do good, or we don’t reflect the faith we profess. The early Christians were known for that. We need to be known for that as well, both in helping each other, and in serving every one. In our following of Jesus, in and through him.

another take on James 5:16b on the prayer of the righteous

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5:16b

Without backing down at all on what I wrote on yesterday’s post, I want to briefly consider another possibility in line with the other way of interpreting, and thus translating this passage. Remember that all translation involves interpretation, say from German to English and back. Which is largely why we have differences in our Bible translations, which together make no impact at all on basic Christian doctrine.

The rendering adopted by the NIV (see NRSVNET, etc.) might be correct, and is certainly possible. The emphasis then would be simply on the prayer of a righteous person being powerful and effective. Even if the other way of translating is getting more to the original writing’s intent (I don’t know), what is said in this post still holds significance. And maybe a bit more so, if the NIV rendering happens to be more accurate.

A righteous person, or the righteous, in meaning is probably a bit different in the book of James then it is in Paul’s writings. The righteous in Paul, are those who are “in Christ,” who share in Christ’s righteousness, whether it’s an alien imputed righteousness, or not. The emphasis is that this righteousness comes from Christ, and is not part of the Law. And that it comes by grace through faith, as well as through baptism. It is worked into one’s life by the Spirit, and thus imparted by God through Christ to the one who has faith. So it’s not like it isn’t worked into real life. It’s just that the emphasis is on faith, and that faith in and of Christ.

In James, righteousness is different. Which is why Martin Luther disliked the letter, calling it “a right strawy epistle.” Paul referred to Abraham as simply believing God’s word, and thus being credited righteousness. James refers to Abraham being obedient so that he was considered righteous (NIV) or justified by what he did, so that James says justification is therefore by works, as well as faith, and not by faith alone. Actually we don’t see James contradicting Paul at all. It’s a different perspective, which is present but expressed in a different way in Paul’s letters. We could say that his faith produced works, and therefore was shown to be genuine faith. Through Paul and elsewhere we learn that we can’t save ourselves through our works, that we can only trust and have faith in God’s word, and specifically in the message of the good news in Jesus. Through hearing that message, and believing, like Abraham, we are justified, made or declared righteous. But if we are saved by grace through faith, we are saved for the good works which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The righteous in James are those who live by the royal law that gives freedom, namely “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that makes a difference not merely in what they believe (the demons believe God is one, and they shudder, says James), but in what they say and do. Certainly belief is important to James, but faith must be accompanied with works to prove its authenticity. Without works, faith is dead.

And so to the passage. The righteous person’s prayer is one who adheres to righteousness as spelled out in this relatively short book. They don’t just listen to the word, but they do what it says. They have humbly accepted the word planted in them, so that they are being saved. True religion includes keeping a tight rein on their tongue, helping orphans and widows (the needy) in their distress, and keeping themselves from being polluted by the world. And echoing Jesus, which James probably does more than Paul, and perhaps more than any other New Testament book, the poor seem to be more inclined toward faith than the rich, and thus are rich themselves in faith, and heirs of the kingdom of God, promised to those who love God.

And so if you are righteous according to James, that’s saying something. The focus should never be on us, but to be righteous according to James, Jesus (see the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) and the First/Old Testament prophets means to have a change of heart, a change of life. And right down into the nitty gritty of where we live, in what we say (and don’t say), as well as what we do (and don’t do), in good works or deeds for others.

If we are righteous in the way James describes as part of our faith, then our prayer can make a difference, in fact actually is powerful and effective. And the good takeaway here is that it isn’t just the emotionally charged, heartfelt prayer, but any prayer at all from the lips and heart of a righteous person. Of course all of this possible only through the faith that is ours in Jesus.

the importance of sound doctrine

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

2 Timothy 1:13-14

Nowadays, it’s not like the need for sound doctrine is scuttled, though I think it often is. It simply is the case that there’s some unsound doctrine as in teaching which is accepted as sound biblical teaching. We have to be on our guard. Especially dangerous is the teaching which comes from churches with an emphasis on a direct knowledge from God, as if they are the purveyors of truth unlike other churches around them. That is a form of gnosticism in the idea that they are the enlightened ones, and the rest of the church is not.

I think the passage quoted above, Paul’s last letter, gets to the heart of the issue. We have to get back to both scripture, and to what the church has taught through the Holy Spirit. Both. We have an unhealthy tendency to appeal to one or the other: either scripture alone, as if it’s in a vaccuum, or the Spirit and experience alone especially as given to certain leaders in the church. When actually we need both together, and discernment from the entire church by the Spirit through the word.

Thankfully within evangelicalism there is an awakening to a new appreciation of the Great Tradition and what the church by the Spirit has taught from scripture through the centuries, especially pertaining to the gospel. The evangelical tradition for all the beating it takes, some of the criticism justified, at least is strong in seeking to promote sound instruction from scripture. They can frankly outdo most of their critics from other church traditions in that regard. But the failure on evangelicalism’s part to make the Lord’s Table the climax and center of a service, is a telling one, inherited from the emphasis which occurred at the Protestant Reformation.

Deb and I left the infant Anglican church plant to take our granddaughter to a church which has programs for kids. I think we’ve found a suitable church now, which is solid in what they believe and teach, even if they don’t agree fully on what the Spirit has given the church through the centuries to believe and practice. I miss the liturgical, the confession of sin, recitation of the Nicene Creed, the broken body and blood of the Lord in the bread and cup. But we do appreciate what is present: a strong emphasis of teaching the word, and hopefully along with that the gospel which is at the heart of the word. That is what we hope for at this present time for our granddaughter.

And I might add, I  believe the church should be engaged in good works to help the poor to get on their feet and to become established through the gospel. Without question this should be an emphasis of every church. Teaching is not enough; practice must follow. Too often Christians depend on the state to do what the state cannot possibly do in the same way the church can and should do. Of course the state should fulfill its responsibility; any good society should look after its own, with safety nets for the poor in helping the poor toward a self-sustaining existence. But only the church through the gospel can help both the rich and the poor and everyone to find the life that is truly life, the eternal life that is in God through Christ.

Sound doctrine matters, and I do appreciate the emphasis of the best of the evangelical tradition in teaching and promoting that, insofar as they understand that. They need to keep working on the other part, to which they are awakening. And never forget to work at helping the poor and needy and oppressed and disabled in and through the name of Jesus. So that they in turn can help others in and through Jesus. Amen.

knowing God personally and in community through Jesus

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

John is writing about an incarnational faith, one that is both material and spiritual. Somehow the very life of God was not just spirit, but matter, indeed flesh and blood in Jesus. And the disciples knew Jesus in the way we all know other human beings. In relationship, as a friend. So this knowledge was something very much down to earth, right where they lived. Yet at the same time, heavenly. Bringing both a fellowship to the community of believers with the Father and the Son, and to each individual within that community, eternal life. That fellowship ongoing, not only for believers and followers of Jesus during that time, but for us as well in Jesus.

I like what I read from Michael Bird in his recent book, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, on the importance of not only knowing doctrine, but knowing God in and through Jesus. What I especially liked from Bird was the thought that this knowing of God impacts our understanding of doctrine. One can of course perhaps understand what scripture says intellectually without knowing God. But one cannot grasp its intended meaning apart from that knowledge of God. In other words the knowledge is indeed incarnational, meant to touch and somehow transform all of life.

This knowing is both individual and communal. In other words we experience it as individuals and in and through community —in Jesus. It is strictly speaking not at all what we know about someone, though that is not cut off as if unimportant. One can know everything about someone without knowing that person at all. To know someone is far more than the sum total of everything we might know about them. But of course it doesn’t mean that what we know about them is unimportant. In the case of Jesus there is no doubt that we need to accept God’s revelation about him. Life is what it is in many details, about us. But at the heart of that is a relationship, indeed a fellowship with the Father and the Son by the Spirit, which we believers and followers of Jesus enjoy together.

judging from within- in the church

The church of God in Jesus is a body which hasn’t arrived, and yet has authority from God and is called the pillar and foundation of the truth. None of us have it altogether. There are times when people, especially leaders need to be called to account. With reference both to life and doctrine. When any leader gets off track on either, they need to be called to account. It should be an in-house matter, hopefully within the local church itself. If a church is part of a denomination or fellowship, than that denomination or fellowship has responsibility to step in and help the leader as well as the church involved. And yet in a sense we in Jesus are all one body on the earth. Therefore we may have to speak up concerning a teaching, even if we don’t call out the teacher by name ourselves.

None of this is anything I really like to be part of. I know Christians have significant differences. With many of them I don’t care much, but there are some I care about a lot. I’m not referring to issues like that. What I’m referring to are matters in which all Christians ought to agree. That in some way God’s word and the gospel is being misrepresented. And it is not so much whether I as an individual see something as a problem; other believers need to see it as a problem as well from the discernment the Spirit gives. In a best case scenario, a church should try to help the leader who is struggling. Perhaps their teaching is not in accord with sound doctrine, or they have failed in their lives somehow, as in a moral failure, or perhaps are struggling over a sin and not doing well. The goal should be to restore them. Perhaps to the same position as before, and fully as a brother or sister in the Lord.

When the church fails to do this, the leader or member simply goes on, maybe emboldened in their own way. No, the church needs to take care of a matter so that it can have a good testimony to the world. Sadly the church has failed again and again in this area, and many have been hurt as a result, as well as the testimony of the church impacted for ill.

The church stands as a high and holy body before the world, Christ’s own body no less. Which is why the highest standards needs to be exacted on it from within. All in the grace, mercy, love and truth of God in and through Jesus. Together in this in Jesus for the world.

one church

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Having churches that differ according to the cultures which they inhabit is one thing, and actually surely quite alright and even necessary. And even back in New Testament times there appears to be churches which were quite Jewish in their orientation, going out of their way not to offend the sensibility of fellow Jews, while proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. While other churches apparently had no such orientation. So churches have been different from the outset.

But in spite of all the differences, the fact remained and remains that in Christ we are all one body. There is actually one church, and its headquarters is not in Rome, or in any other location on earth, for that matter. Its headquarters are in heaven in Jesus. He is the head, and his body continues on earth by the Spirit.

Does that mean we should get rid of all denominations, and just call all our churches Christian, period? Not necessarily, though it’s a nice dream. What is true is that we are all one body, regardless of all our differences. So that means the Baptists, Pentecostals, nondenominational, Reformed, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans,  Catholics, Orthodox, etc., etc., are all actually one body in Christ. That does not mean we shouldn’t take seriously our doctrinal differences. It does mean we should be united as much as we possibly can in this world. Not easy, but if we remember where our unity lies, then we can begin to practice this, even if it seems an exercise of naked faith at times.

No denomination is perfect, or the one, but I appreciate the Evangelical Covenant Church of which we are a part, and for this very reason (among other reasons). I think the way we are church, and the way we do it is more oriented to a responsible witness of the unity we have with the body of Christ in the world, with all churches and denominations. For example, while the pastor has to know where they stand on these issues from scripture, they baptize infants (after all, our roots are Lutheran) and dedicate other infants, waiting to baptize them upon profession of their faith. We have the tradition of both just war and pacifist adherents. We love good liturgy, and practice something of a sacramental understanding of the faith, while also practicing something of the concrete, down to earth nature of the body, or what we’re called to be for each other now in Jesus by the Spirit.

And so by an act of faith, let’s seek to put aside our differences. Not an easy task at times, but let’s look beyond our differences to the essence of our faith which is found in Jesus. That by our united witness in love, the world might see Jesus.