Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cliche- "I have a personal relationship with God" Part 3

In the past few posts we have been the looking at the popular Christian cliche which says, "I have a personal relationship with God." At the stake of looking like an unspiritual doubter, I have been testing this cliche to see whether it is biblical or not. The Goal of a Christian should not be to uphold tradition, but rather to be conformed to the Scriptures.

I will briefly list the conclusions of our study thus far.

1. The most commonly quoted verses from the Psalms used to support the idea that we are to have a personal relationship with God do not directly teach this. We looked at Psalm 42; 63; and 16. Two other popular verses used to support this idea that I did not address are Psalm 37 (especially vs. 4) and Psalm 34 (especially vs. 8). In all of these Psalms the Psalmists desires the presence of God for the sake of protection, longevity, provision, or physical prosperity. He does not desire the presence of God just cause, or for the sake of being near to the heart of God (whatever that means). As stated before, just because these verses do not directly teach that we are to pursue a dynamic relationship with God, they also do not teach against this. The Bible surely does teach that we are to have a personal relationship with God. But Biblical truth does not determine the meaning of a passage, context does. We then form our idea of Biblical truth from what context conveys.

2. Modern day Christians treat popular cliches in much the same way as the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) treats church tradition--they interpret the Scriptures in light of it.

3. Any doctrine, including this one, can be very dangerous when emphasized to the point of excluding other pertinent aspects of Christian theology.

Outside of Jesus and the Apostles Martin Luther is, in the opinion of many, the most influential and transitional figure in the history of Christianity. The more I learn about who Luther was, what he did, and what he taught, the more I begin to appreciate him. Luther was, to put it lightly, a genius.

As stated in an earlier post, Luther lived and taught when the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) was ruling the roost. Luther is the greatest example of what it looks like when someone is dedicated to Sola Scriptura.

He grew up under the influence of Roman Catholic (RC) teaching. The seminary he attended was RC as well. Luther did not have access to the Bible upon his arrival at seminary. He was indoctrinated by the false teachings of the RCC. Therefore, when Luther finally got access to the Bible he was full of RC presuppositions and biases. He was just as thoroughly effected by RC teaching than we are by today's popular Christian cliches. Yet when Luther sat down with the Bible he laid his theological convictions aside and tested them by the Scriptures. When he did this he was able to discern the false teachings that he had believed his whole life.

One of the problems prevalent in the RCC confronted by Luther was the way the leadership of the RCC abused their authoritative power. The RCC made it illegal in Germany for lay people to have a Bible. They did this out of fear that lay people might use the Bible to fight against the teachings of the church. They were also afraid of the church splitting into a thousand different pieces (which was one of the results of Luther's reform).

The RCC also taught that an individual Christian could not pray to God directly, rather they had to go through a priest. As Luther began testing these teachings in light of the Scriptures he began to see how unbiblical they were. He realized that the New Testament (NT) teaches that every believer, upon conversion, is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He realized that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and men. He also became convinced that every believer should have access to the Word of God. He translated the Bible into German for the sake of the common man.

Everyone reading this post right now ought to take a few minutes and thank the Lord for Luther's influence. Without Luther it is likely that we would not have the Bible in our native tongue. Without the influence and boldness of Luther it is likely that we would still be praying to God through a bunch of dead Saints. Without the influence of Luther it is likely that God would still be seen as a far, overly distant, cold deity who delights in judgement.

If it were not for Luther it is likely that we would hear nothing about what it means to have a personal relationship with God. Luther discovered that the Bible had quite a bit to say about individuals and their ability to relate with God on their own apart from the structure of the church. This is not to say that Luther was against formalized church government structures, rather he was against the great chasm that existed between the clergy and the laity (and especially in regard to how they related with God).

Now I do not want to take away from the things that Luther said, but it is important to remember that Luther, almost all by himself, was fighting against the beliefs of the whole continent of Europe. Therefore, it was of necessity that he argue in extremes. This does not mean that you cannot trust what Luther said, but it does mean that you must understand the situation that Luther was confronting. Many of Luther's followers failed to realize this, and they took his ideas too far.

Luther was very much against those who took his teachings too far. One of the things Luther spent much time talking about was the appropriate way to respond to those with whom you disagree. Luther warned against the tendency to over react against false teaching. He used an illustration with a man and his horse. The man approaches his horse to go for a ride and in attempt to get on the horse he flips his leg up and over the horse, but doesn't quite kick hard enough. The man then takes a step back to set up his approach. He nears the horse again to attempt a remount, but this time, to avoid another failed attempt, kicks with all of his might. But the man kicks so hard that he falls off the other side of the horse.

The obvious purpose of the illustration was to show that over reacting against a false teaching actually produces just as much error as the original false teaching. Luther did not desire to make non-Catholic Christians. He desired to make Biblical Christians. It should not be the desire of a pastor to make his people Non-Charismatic Christians, or Non-Calvinistic Christians, or Non-Arminian Christians, or anything like this. A pastors desire should be to make his people Biblical Christians. God is not all that impressed if you can pick out the flaws in modern evangelistic methods, rather He is impressed when you are able to do evangelism Biblically.

It can be argued that modern Christian Culture's over emphasis on the "personal" dimension of a Christian's relationship with God is the result of taking Luther's teachings too far. Although the Protestant Reformation has effected us primarily for the good, it also has had it's negative effects, and this is one of them. This negative effect can be seen in Luther and Calvin. It can be seen in the Puritans and yes, even in John Wesley. It can be seen in Tozer, Lloyd-Jones, Ravenhill,and Pink. It can also be seen in Piper and nearly every other popular Christian author today. It is the tendency to individualize all of Scripture. It is the tendency to take verses referring to churches and groups and to apply them to individuals.

Let me give just one example from the NT.

Romans 12:1-2 "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may be able to prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect."

This verse is usually applied to individuals. Something similar to this is said, "In light of the Gospel. In light of what God has done for you (as an individual), you need to present your body as a living sacrifice. You need to expend yourself (time, talents, money, gifts, strength etc.) for the kingdom of God and this is the correct response to God for what He has done for you in Christ."

This sounds nice and all, but there is a much more accurate way of approaching this passage. It begins with an examination of the context. Paul wrote to the Romans because they were having troubles getting along. Racism was rampant in Rome. The Jews were looking down on the Gentiles because they were not descended from Abraham, and because they were uncircumcised etc. The Gentiles were ticked off at the Jews because of how they were oppressing them. The Gentiles also struggled with pride because it was becoming apparent that God had turned to them.

The tensions in Rome were great. The Jews and Gentiles were nearly at each other's throats. How on earth could anyone step in and calm things down? How could this situation be diffused? Well, the Apostle Paul decided to write the Romans a letter to diffuse the problem. He starts his letter telling them that they are all (both Jews and Gentiles) under sin. Paul went to great lengths in the first three chapters to prove that no one is exempt from this reality. Why did he go to such great lengths? Because he wanted to show the Jews that they have nothing over the Gentiles, because they were just as sinful as the Gentiles before God justified them. He also wanted to show the Gentiles that they were no better than the self righteous Jews because they were in the same boat before God justified them as well.

In Romans 3:19-5:21 Paul informed the Romans that they were all saved in the same way--By grace through faith. He did this to show the Jews that they did nothing to merit their own salvation. Their salvation was the work of God alone, therefore they have no reason to think that they are better than the Gentiles. "Salvation is a thing of grace therefore don't think that you are so hot Jews" (my little twist).

Then in Chapters 6-8 Paul sets forth to speak of the new life that the Jews and the Gentiles now share together in Christ.

Romans 8:15 says that they (Jews and Gentiles) "have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" Notice that they cry out "Abba! Father!" Is "Father" a Greek word? Of course not! How then do you think it would be read in the Greek? The Greek word for "Father" is Pater. What does Abba mean? Abba is the Arabic word for "Father." Therefore the Greek literally reads, "we cry out 'Abba! Pater!'" What an amazing reality! The Gentiles spoke Aramaic and so they called their father Abba. The Hebrews (Jews) spoke Greek and so they called their father Pater. What is Paul getting at here? He is saying that both Jews and Greeks are adopted. They are adopted into the same family, therefore they have the same Father. There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles in the sight of God other than the Language they use to address Him as "Father." The Jews and Gentiles address God as "Father" together, in unison, in their own unique languages. (The majority of commentators take "Abba, Father" to be personal reference to God, emphasizing a believers close relationship to God through the Spirit. But with the words, Abba and Pater, and with the Jew/Gentile theme throughout Romans, what I am saying seems to be much more faithful to context).

We then see many wonderful things in Romans 9-11. Paul writes Chapter 9 to show that being a descendant of Abraham does not help ones case before the judgement seat of Christ. How then are people saved if not on the basis of race? They are saved on the basis of God's predestining them unto salvation. Therefore, the Gentiles can be saved even though they are not descended from Abraham. Tis far better to be a child of the promise than to be a physical descendant of Abraham.

Then, before the Gentiles get too big headed, in Chapter 11, Paul humbles them by reminding them that they have been graciously grafted into the olive tree. He reminds them that the Jews were the natural branches which have been lopped off because of disobedience. Then he says, "Do not be conceited (O Gentiles), but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. Behold the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God's kindness, IF you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off." Paul then ends chapter 11 informing the Romans that God is not finished with the Jews. In fact, there is going to be a mass conversion of the Jews at the end of the age.

Finally we get to Romans 12:1, "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God." In light of everything that Paul has said thus far he is going to direct them to some sort of action. Thus far he has stressed the fact that Jews and Gentiles have been in the same boat since the get-go. He has stressed 4 main things.

1. Jews and Gentiles alike were equally sinful.
2. Jews and Gentiles alike can take no ownership of their salvation.
3. Jews and Gentiles were raised up together and adopted into the same family.
4. Jews and Gentiles alike had better not think they are better than each other.

Pay attention here.

"Therefore, I urge you (this "you" is plural in Greek), brethren (this is plural in Greek), by the mercies of God, to present your bodies (this is plural in Greek) a living and holy sacrifice (this is singular in Greek), which is your spiritual service of worship."

How are those in the Roman Church to respond to what has been said up to this point? They are to present their BODIES (plural) as a living and holy sacrifice (Singular). Do you see the plural "bodies" and the singular "sacrifice." What then is the appropriate response to what has been said up to this point? UNITY! What is their "spiritual service of worship?" Unity in the body of Christ. What is one of the most crucial and God glorying aspects of worship? Unity! Forgiving one another from the heart!

Paul goes on and says, "And do not be conformed to the pattern of this world." What is the "pattern of this world?" Racism! The Jews hated the Gentiles and the Gentiles hated the Jews. This is life in 1st Century Rome. Paul is calling them away from this in light of the mercies of God.

Ok, so he wants to call them away from the "pattern of this world," but for what? So that they might "prove what the will of God is." Well, what is the "will of God" in this context? I can tell you one thing, it is not some super spiritual subjective leading of the Holy Spirit. How do I know this? Because he explains in the very next verse what the will of God is. Take a look at Romans 12:3-15:33. This is the will of God. What does this section of Romans talk about? Unity! Getting along with those in the body of Christ! Paul was calling them to unity. Romans 12:1-2 has very little to do with an individuals response to God. It has everything to do with corporate life. It has everything to do with getting along with those who are a part of the family of God, regardless of racial distinctions, social class distinctions, or any other type of distinction.

This, according to Romans, is the proper way to respond to what God has done for us in Christ. So many today totally miss this verse and what it means because they are not leaning on context. Granted, following context is not all that easy. I am not saying that all modern day pastors are lazy and stupid. Rather, I am saying that we, as Christians, ought to be putting all of our energy into context. We need to put all of our eggs in the basket of context. Context determines meaning.

There are many other passages that we mis-read because of our over emphasis on the "personal" dimension of a believer's relationship with God. I will not go through any more verses in this post. But I will say that the majority of NT texts used today to support this "personal" dimension of the Christian life are taken out of context. The majority of the NT is written to Churches confronting corporate problems (whether they be relational or doctrinal).

The great majority of the NT is not written to individuals to help them understand how to have a more dynamic personal relationship with God. The majority of the NT teaches believers to get their eyes off of themselves and on to others. The majority of the NT focuses on evangelism and living in community. Yes there is a personal dimension to the Christian life, and yes the NT does address this (John 17 for example), but this is not the emphasis in the NT.

The majority of Christians in today's culture will chaff at what I am saying here, but I am not saying this for the sake of being picky. I am saying these things because I desire to see Biblical Christianity. I am not, in any way, teaching that we should not seek a personal relationship with God, but I am saying that this certain aspect of Christianity should not be emphasized more than the Bible emphasizes it.

Now more than ever, Christianity needs to recapture the Bibles emphasis on corporate life. Christianity today is a mess. Churches are splitting left and right. It is not uncommon to have people in the same church hating one another! What sin! What awful grotesque rebellion! Bitterness! Greed! Covetousness! American Christianity could be characterized more by middle school type squabbles than by the grace and love of our Savior. HEY! But at least we are doing our devotionals! At least we have all of our Christian life verses memorized. Devotionals don't mean all that much when you live in friction with a fellow brother or sister in Christ. We need unity! Unity based on truth and grace!

Pastors are running to and fro throughout the land trying to find the remedy to the unity problems in their churches. Let me fill you in on something: The answers to your church unity problems are in the Bible. Read it in context and you will see. Drop your individualistic agenda and read the Bible in context.

In the next post, Lord willing, I will discuss what it means to have a personal relationship with God, according to the Scriptures read in context.

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