Thursday, April 21, 2011

Neuhaus' Law and the Forthcoming Intolerance

I just read this Presbyterian Outlook article by Barbara G. Wheeler and John Wilkinson, pleading with orthodox Presbyterians to stick with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the face of the likely removal of biblical fidelity and chastity standards from the denomination's ordination standards.

The article immediately brought to mind something Richard John Neuhaus wrote several years ago. At that time, Neuhaus addressed what happens to orthodoxy when it's made optional. Lo and behold, Neuhaus' words were reprinted in the latest issue of First Things magazine. What a happy coincidence.

I've found "Neuhaus' Law" to be very helpful in interpreting the times of my own denomination (PCUSA) and other mainline denominations:
Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed ... Orthodoxy suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy’s good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others. [Emphasis added.]
Despite all the protestations to the contrary, proscription of orthodoxy is precisely what will happen if the revisionists succeed, as they almost certainly will, in altering with the denomination's deminished ordination standards. All will be well, until that first person ordained under the diminished standards gets called to a predominantly orthodox presbytery.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Colossians 06: Hosanna in the Highest

Scripture text: Colossians 2:6-15

Paul has told the Colossians that he is writing to them so “that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” False teaching is beginning to manifest itself in this Christian community from within by people who sound reasonable. How does the church combat false teaching? Everything should be tested against the person and work of Jesus. How do we test everything by the person and work of Jesus? Paul tackles this question in the verse two verses of today’s reading. Specifically, we are to walk “in him” and “with him” [Jesus].

If you have your bibles open, you may want to look again for those specific words, or words like them, in the rest of these verses. Staying in/with Jesus is what one commentator has said is “the scarlet thread through the whole passage.”1 And so it is. It is so easy to read a passage like this in English and miss this repetition. Look how Paul exhorts the Colossians:

Verse 6: “Walk in him”
Verse 7: “rooted and built up in him”
Verse 9: “for in him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily”
Verse 10: “you have been filled in him”
Verse 11: “in him you also were circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands.”
Verse 12: “having been buried with him in baptism” and “raised with him through faith”
Verse 13: “and you … God made alive with him”
Verse 15: “He [God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”

Everything we are as Christians, everything we do as Christians, is to be located first and foremost in and with a person named Jesus.

“On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” All other things that we imagine will fulfill us, pride, money, fame, fortune, sex, substances of all kinds, all of that is sinking sand. The foundation of the Christian and the fullness of the Christian is Jesus Christ and nothing else. Paul is telling the Colossians, and to us, that we should not be looking anywhere else for truth, fullness, or meaning except at Christ. The key teaching of this sermon is that Christians are to stick close to their Savior, especially when encountering enticements and deceptive teaching within the Church. The surest way to remain steadfast in the faith is to stay close to Jesus. The way to stay close to Jesus is by remembering what He did on the cross.

“As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6-7). Those who are Christians are those who have received Jesus Christ as the Lord of all. If you are a Christian, this means everything has been turned over to Christ, including your life, breath, money, feelings, emotions, tears, marriage, everything. Notice the Paul says the Colossians have received Christ Jesus as the Lord. They have already shown Paul that they are believers in the word of truth, the gospel. Now in the face of deceptive teaching, Paul exhorts them to remain steadfast in the faith. How do you remain steadfast in the faith? By walking “in him.” That’s a curious phrase, isn’t it? We walk, “in him.” Don’t you normally walk with someone? There’s an intimacy here that bears some exploration. Those who have been graciously transferred into the kingdom of God will only flourish when they walk in Christ. I take that to mean that our lives as Christians must be totally wrapped up in the person of Jesus. I have used the illustration that when you’ve been transferred by God’s gracious action into His Kingdom, you are transferred into a place that is holy, as God is radically holy. The way we survive in such a place given our ongoing battles with sin is by being clothed with Christ. And until the day we are totally sanctified by God, we have to remain in Him. Whenever we walk anywhere, we are careful that we remain in Christ, following wherever He leads.

Walking “in him” brings spiritual growth and flourishing, not unlike that found in a healthy tree. By walking “in him,” the Christian’s faith will remain “rooted and built up in him.” Christ is the foundation of Christian life, but also the source of growth as the Christian matures in the faith to the glory of God. And those so rooted and built up by Christ are to abound in thanksgiving for the mighty act God has completed on their behalf. Do you regularly give thanks to God for saving you? I’m challenged by that every day. It is so easy to take the gift of salvation for granted, isn’t it? So many Christians live as if being sprinkled with water and saying the right words is sufficient for a lifelong commitment to Christ. But this passage makes it clear that the rites of Christian initiation mark only the very beginning of Christian discipleship. One of the responsibilities of Christian life is to give abounding thanksgiving. Our lives ought to be characterized by the constant, overflowing, thanksgiving to God in our prayers, at work, in our homes, with our families, and especially with our brother and sisters in Church. Our worship is one of the ways we give thanks to God for his abundant provision for our salvation from sin and death and hell by the glorious work of his son. Paul reminds the Colossians and us that Christians are a people who stay with Christ and constantly give thanks to God for His abundant grace. We are a hosanna people.

Jesus’ claim on our lives total. He is Lord. But we are also still sinners, and so we are prey for those who would attempt to deceive us and draw us away from Christ. We are susceptible to the temptations of worldly authorities and idols that try to persuade us not to rely on Christ alone for our fullness, for our completeness. This is what was happened to the Colossians. “Teachers” had infiltrated their ranks, and, using plausible, persuasive arguments, were trying to convince them that their personal “fullness” was, as one commentator puts it, “beyond their grasp unless they took sufficient account of the spiritual powers and followed a strict discipline of ritual and ascetic observance.”2

After exhorting the Colossians to be “rooted and built up in him” and “abounding in faith”, Paul will show them how they are being tempted by false teaching, into thinking that faith alone in Christ isn’t sufficient. The temptation is that they will be taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” I mentioned one way that this kind of thing happens in the church when I mentioned the influence of the best-selling book, “the Secret.” Another example can be found in the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus entered as the king, and is acknowledged by such with the shouts of the crowd in Matthew 21:9, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” They are praising Jesus as the King, which is the right thing to do, but they are doing it from a worldly perspective, based on human traditions and understandings of who a king should be and what a king ought to do. From the worldly view, the king is supposed to raise up armies to defeat oppressive, occupying regime’s like that of the Roman Empire. They don’t go around turning over the tables in the temple, proclaiming woes on the highly esteemed Pharisees and Sadducees, all the while making claims. The crowds expected a king according to the worldly philosophies, human traditions, and elemental spirits of the world. They were really only interested in what Jesus might do for them. They were no so interested in just him. That’s our temptation today, too. We are sorely tempted to honor and love Jesus based on the good things he gives us, rather than honor and love Jesus for who he is the glorious Son of God who is God. We have the benefit of seeing, in God’s Word, who Jesus really is. What a wonderful gift. When He is seen for who he is, we can’t help but shout out, “Lord, ‘save I pray!’” Hosanna!

So how should Christians live in Christ? First, we are to always be on our guard.
[8] See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
It is likely that in Colossae there were some peddling false teachings called “philosophies”. The famous Jewish historian Josephus called the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees “philosophies.” These teaching are false, “empty deceits” because they are wholly from the world, the “elemental spirits of the world”, and are not the truth that is found only in Christ.

We cannot know definitively what these “philosophies” consisted of, but we get a sense of their impact by what Paul says here. He seems to make references to terms being used by the false teachers, terms like “fullness.” It is likely that the false teachers in Colossae were attempting to persuade the Colossians that real spiritual “fullness” could only be achieved by adopting certain “philosophies” being taught by the false teachers. This sets off alarm bells for Paul, who knows that the Colossians have already received all the fullness of God’s grace, mercy, and love having received Christ as Lord.

And so Paul reminds them that it this fullness is found only in Christ:
[9] For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, [10] and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
If you are a Christian, you have been filled up in Christ with all of the hope and joy of the riches of God Almighty. Christians do not lack any spiritual necessity of life and they share in the rule and authority of the one who has saved them.

Paul continues by reminding the Colossians, and us today, what was received when we were brought to faith in Christ:
[11] In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, [12] having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Notice the language here. The Colossians have been “circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands.” What kind of circumcision is this? Physical circumcision was a mark of being a part of the covenant nation of Israel. The Colossians were primarily Gentiles. So Paul is telling the Colossians that they, too, have been brought into God’s covenant family with a circumcision that He performed for them. It was a circumcision of the heart like that promised in Deuteronomy 30:6, when Moses said, “[6] And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” In that act, God buried their old, dead lives and were raised with Jesus by the powerful work of God signified in their baptisms. From then on, a Christian is a resurrection being. Have you been convicted by that truth, that the resurrection from the dead is so sure and certain that if you are in Christ, it is as if such your resurrection from the dead has already happened? Doesn’t this assurance open the door to joyful obedience, free from fear and anxiety because you’ve already received the fullness of God’s promise in Jesus Christ your Lord? Shouldn’t this truth give Christians great strength and courage? Doesn’t this mean that Christians have free reign to give their money away, because they have all the riches they need in Christ? Doesn’t this mean that Christians should be able to proclaim their faith in Jesus without fear, because all the approval they need in their life is made full and complete by God’s acceptance and approval in Christ?

Just how full and complete is this acceptance? Check this out:
[13] And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, [14] by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. [15] He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
The Colossians were dead in their trespasses, and were not a part of God’s covenant family because they lacked the physical sign of their inclusion, circumcision. But now having been circumcised by God spiritually, they have been made alive with Christ, and all of those sins are forgiven. Verse 14 speaks of a “record of debt” that stood against “us” (notice that Paul, who was circumcised, includes himself even though he was circumcised). God took that legal document, that list of sin-debts that he was totally within His rights to demand from us, and in nailed it to the cross. Those sins died with Christ, and were forgotten, and all the rulers and authorities plotting against God’s people were utterly defeated.

I recently saw a terrific video on the Internet that used great imagery to describe what Jesus did by his death. We start out life with an unpayable debt of sin to our Creator. But he, in his grace, made payment of that debt on our behalf by writing out a check with the precious blood of Jesus shed on the Cross. And it was Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which we celebrate every Sunday and especially next Sunday, that showed the universe that the check cleared, and that we were clear of the debt.

Why wouldn’t we want to live in and with the One who did such a gracious thing on our behalf? Why wouldn't we shout, with the crowds, "Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" Amen.

1O’Brien, Peter. Colossians, Philemon. Mexico: Thomas Nelson, 2000. 104.
2Ibid., 114.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
April 17, 2011
Palm Sunday
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew
Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.8

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Idolatry of Pride

This morning I experienced a social networking convergence on the subject of pride, the über-sin.  First, there was this tweet from Desiring God:

Then, along came this awesome post by Russell Moore entitled The Normalization of Pride. Here's the opening graph [emphasis added by me]:
Pride is, by definition, idolatrous and insurrectionist because it is rooted in ingratitude. It glorifies the creature over against the Creator and claims the inheritance rights of image-bearers without acknowledging that we have these things because we reflect an image, not because we are ultimate (Rom. 1:22–23).
And now I can't get Good Friday out of my head. Pride-filled humanity crucified the Son of God.