Portrait of a Christian

What does a Christian look like?  This is a question all of us must answer as we seek to follow Christ.  The short answer of course is we are to look like Jesus.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29).  In Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ( John 1:14).  He manifested himself to us and revealed his image, thus showing us what our lives as Christians should look like.

He made himself our model (John 13:34-35, 20:21).  However, it is often hard to translate the life of Christ into our context.  Recently I was reading a biography on John Wesley, who is one of my heroes in the faith.  While I disagree with him on some secondary issues of theology I greatly respect him as a practical theologian.  As such, he was very much concerned with living out what we believe.

In light of this, the book I was reading dedicated the entire first chapter to a tract that Wesley had written in the mid 1700s which I have found to be exceedingly relevant today.  It is entitled The Character of a Methodist.  The term Methodist was given to the group Wesley founded as a derogatory name mocking the methodical way in which they approached life and Bible study.  Thus Wesley is not writing a denominational statement, but is simply making it clear that a Methodist, indeed all Christians should look like Jesus.

I encourage you to read this tract and meditate on what it really means to be conformed to the image of Christ.

What is Hungering and Thirsting for Righteousness?

I have often wondered what it actually means to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  First, having grown up in a working class home in the US I have no real point of reference for what it means to be really hungry or thirsty.  I have always had food and clean water readily available to me.  Second, what does “righteousness” actually mean?  Is it simply abstaining from evil?  Does it mean reading you Bible and praying?  Is it only a longing for justification?

For the truly hungry, the desire for food is all consuming.  I remember walking through a slum in Brazil a few years ago and watched as a woman set her garbage on the curb to be picked up.  As she walked quietly back to her home several children came running, seemingly from nowhere, to the place she had left the bag of trash.  I watched as children eagerly tore through the plastic bag and pulled out scraps of food.  They were kneeling on the sidewalk consuming garbage, because hunger consumed them.

In the Bible we see stories of people in famine.  There are cases where they eat bird droppings and donkey heads.  There are even times where mothers eat their own children to survive.  In light of all of this, whatever “righteousness” is I know I can’t say that I hunger and thirst for it; at least not to the extent that a starving child searches for scraps of bread.

As a young Christian I understood hungering for righteousness to mean that I would avoid evil things like lust and adultery.  I thought that it meant that I would progressively read my Bible more and spend more time in prayer.  In essence if I avoided the big sins and practiced spiritual disciplines then I was hungering for righteousness.  While these are good things and they are certainly an aspect of what is meant in Matt 5:6, this is a woefully inadequate understanding of the verse.

Without question we see here a reference to the righteousness of God found in Christ Jesus.  Those who are poor in spirit realize their sinfulness and inability to rectify it.  They mourn over their sin to the point of repentance and faith in the one whose blood cleanses them and they are justified.  Christ takes their sin upon Himself and graciously gives them His righteousness.  Certainly the God given brokenness for sin that leads to a longing to be reconciled to God is an aspect of what is meant in Matt 5:6.

Is justification all that is in view here?  Does this verse have anything to say to the believer who is being conformed to the image of Christ?  Absolutely!  We see two additional aspects of this desire for righteousness.  One is a hunger for personal holiness.  It is clear that the one who is made righteous should desire to live out that righteousness in a practical way.  Grace is not a license for sin and we are indeed called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15).

Second, is a hunger to see God’s righteousness spread throughout the world system.  In The Institutes John Calvin said “Righteousness includes all the duties of justice, that every man may receive his just dues.”  In addition, Tim Keller in Generous Justice, says “If you are a Christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life – you are failing to live justly and righteously”.  As citizens of the Kingdom of God we must be actively seeking to spread the righteousness of our King through every aspect of our lives and society.  This is the aspect of hungering for righteousness that is most often neglected or totally overlooked.

In closing, we see that hungering and thirsting for righteousness is a daunting task.  It is not one that fallen men will ever desire on their own.  However, when the Spirit of God changes our hearts and we are reconciled to God we are made righteous.  This results in a desire to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  As a result, we begin to long for personal holiness and for the world around us to be reconciled to God that He would rule and reign in all aspects of life.

Do you hunger for that type of righteousness like a starving child longs for a crust of bread?  I know I don’t, but I want to!  By God’s grace I pray that my life would be marked by this type of hunger and thirsting for righteousness.  That I would not be content to just go to church, avoid a list of sins, occasionally read my Bible, and pray over my meals.  That would be a tragedy and a life wasted.

Faith and Works

The book of James has, from the beginning, been shrouded in controversy.  It was argued that it should not be included in the canon of scripture.  Much of the controversy revolved around the second half of chapter two.  On the surface there seems to be a contradiction between James’ view of salvation (James 2:24) and Paul’s understanding of salvation (Romans 4:4-5).  This seeming contradiction led Martin Luther to refer to James as “an epistle of straw.”[1]

Both James and Paul point to Abraham’s belief of the Lord’s promise resulting in his being counted as righteous (Genesis 15:6).  Yet Paul concluded in Romans 4:1-5 that Abraham’s justification was a gift by faith alone.  Paul is clear that no works were involved.  James however, clearly states that Abraham’s faith was “completed by his works” (James 2:22 ESV) and a person is “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 ESV).  These statements can’t both be right, or can they?

To better understand what the writers of scripture are saying it’s important to understand the purpose of their writings.  They each had a set of false teachers in mind.  Paul was addressing the issue of legalism where people sought to add to faith by meritorious works.  This is most clearly evident in the epistle of Galatians.  James on the other hand, was addressing Jewish aristocrats who practiced an easy believism that understood faith as a mere intellectual adherence to orthodoxy void of any practical obedience, or orthopraxis.[2]  They were like a Christian version of the Pharisees.

With this in mind, let’s review James 2:14-26.  Reflecting back to his statement regarding the fulfillment of the royal law in vs. 8, James sets up a hypothetical situation in vs. 14-17 to make his point.  Notice in vs. 14 he is referring to someone who “says” he has faith, but does not have works to go along with that professed faith.  This is significant for James’ argument because his premise is that profession void of action is not saving faith, hence the rhetorical question, “can that faith save him?” (ESV)

Building from his previous argument regarding the oppression of the poor, James puts forth his case.   He describes a poor Christian who is a brother in Christ to the audience and presumably to the one who says he has faith in vs. 14.  This needy Christian is utterly destitute without even the basic necessities.  For James it would be absurd, even impossible, for someone with real faith to send this poor brother or sister away without helping them.  John echoes this sentiment in 1 John 3:16-18.  For James and John, faith that remains by itself and does not exhibit compassion on the poor brother or sister, is a dead faith.  In this point Paul would agree.  In one of his clearest statements on salvation by faith (Eph 2:8-9) he likewise ties real faith to works (Eph 2:10).

In vs. 18 James anticipates the reader’s response to his hypothetical situation, “One person has faith; another has deeds.”[3]  In other words, faith and deeds are mutually exclusive.  James responds by noting the impossibility of exhibiting real faith apart from works; genuine faith will be discernible by the works it produces.  This is crucial to understanding the message of this passage.  For James true faith is distinguished by its fruit.  Contrary to the belief of the aristocrats, mere intellectual acceptance of who Jesus is was not saving faith.  After all, even the demons believed the facts about Jesus (vs. 19).

Here is where the passage gets difficult and the seeming contradiction with Paul comes into view.  James sets out to prove that faith without corresponding works is trivial and of no value.  As mentioned above he illustrates this point by looking to Abraham’s faith.  He states that Abraham was justified by works when he “offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21 ESV).  Of course he is referring to Genesis 22 when Abraham obediently set out to sacrifice Isaac at the Lord’s command.  For James, according to vs. 22-23 the faith Abraham professed in Genesis 15:6 was brought to completion in Genesis 22.

This point is crucial to a proper understanding of the text.  The clear evidence that the profession in Genesis 15:6 was the exercise of genuine faith was the obedience displayed in Genesis 22.  As Christians, we like to talk about God knowing our hearts and our willingness to do something for him.  This is typical of our rationalization of The Rich Young Ruler passage in Luke 18:18-30.  However, this is not the pattern of scripture.  God is not satisfied to secretly peer into our hearts to see if we are willing.  He puts us to the test.  Why was Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac?  It was because he had real faith.  The same is true for Daniel and the lion’s den, the three boys and the furnace, David with Goliath, etc.  Throughout scripture, faith is justified or proved by deeds.

James continues this point with the story of Rahab. Her genuine faith was made manifest in that she protected the messengers (vs. 25).  In all of these cases, saving faith is a living faith that produces good works.  For James, as well as Paul, true faith is accompanied by a life of doing the works that Jesus has prepared for us (Eph 2:10).  For both of them there is no room at the cross for an intellectually based easy believism that is void of death to self, cross bearing, and obedience.

                [1] Stott, John. The Story of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 117.

                [2] Ibid, 121.

                [3] Frank E. Gæbelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 183.

Worship that Pleases God

I have long been intrigued with Isaiah 58.  It’s a very interesting passage because it seems to view the worship of God in a way that is very different from what is often considered the norm in the western Church.  In the first verse we see God commanding the prophet to “cry aloud; do not hold back” (ESV) in declaring the sins of the people.  Then the Lord goes on to describe them as people who “seek me daily” and “delight to know my ways”.  They ask for “righteous judgments and delight to draw near to their God”.  To put this in our terms you might say these are people who have a daily quiet time; reading the word and praying.  They desire to worship and attend church regularly.  These things are considered synonymous with someone who has their act together as a Christian; someone who faithfully loves the Lord.

Yet in this case these seemingly faithful followers of the Lord are complaining because he is ignoring them and their religious practices, specifically fasting.  Why is God ignoring these people who seek him and desire to know him?  As the prophet said in Is 29:13 and as Jesus described the Pharisees in Matt 15:8-9 “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”.  While they were faithful to practice spiritual aspects of their faith, they were neglecting, or even ignoring, the practical outworking of the word of God in their lives.

While daily quiet time, prayer, and even fasting are essential to the Christian life, when they are done in a vacuum and do not penetrate into our daily lives they are displeasing to God.  According to this passage that is sin and results in God’s judgment.  Jesus summed up all of the law and prophets in this “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” Matt 22:37-40.  This is exactly the problem for these people; their one-sided religious practices revealed that they did not sacrificially love others and thus did not love God.

The people fasted to seek their own pleasure and beyond neglecting the needy actually oppressed them further (vs.3).  They would declare a fast day in order to win God’s favor and blessing, but would not allow their workers to participate.  Instead, they were forced to make up for the lack of productivity resulting from the masters fast.  Further, they would visibly humble themselves, which Jesus warned against in Matt 6:16-18 “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others”.  This is not normative of a heart that has been transformed by the gospel of grace, but illustrates legalistic religion being practiced to somehow please God and earn the praise of men!

In reply to the people’s question of why the Lord had not responded to their fasting the Lord explains the type of worship he will respond to.  In vs. 6-14 he gives several if/then statements that make it very clear what moves his heart.  In vs. 6 God says he responds to worship that will “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”.  This refers to God’s people actively working to see that those who are marginalized or oppressed are freed from those bonds and treated fairly.

In vs. 7 he goes on to say worship that pleases him is to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house” and to care for your fellow man by clothing the naked.  He also says “not to hide yourself from your own flesh”.  When the people turned a blind eye to their fellow Israelites who were oppressed, hungry, homeless, and naked they were hiding themselves from their own flesh, or people.  They didn’t want to deal with them so they avoided them.  When we see the oppressed, hungry, homeless, and naked who are members of the global body of Christ and ignore them, turn a blind eye, or rationalize how their condition is their own fault are we not doing the same thing?

So God is looking for worshipers who have their eyes and hearts open to the hurting.  People who will free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.  Are these aspects of our faith things that we normally think of as equally important to a daily quiet time or going to church?  Romans 12:1 says “present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.   These acts of sacrificial love for others are indeed acts or worship!

Having shown the people the type of worship he desires the Lord proceeds to give them a glorious promise.  If they will worship him in this way then God will bless them abundantly.  He promises that their light will break forth like the dawn.  We are the light of the world and when we love others sacrificially God will cause that light to shine in such a way that the world will not only see it, but they will respond.  Like with the early church in Acts 2 and 4 when they worshiped God in this way “great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33) and they had “favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day” (Acts 2:47).

Lovingly and sacrificially caring for the hurting not only results in the poor and needy coming to Christ but our middleclass neighbors as well.  When our neighbor the moral businessman, who though not a Christian is honest, faithful to his wife and loves his family, looks at us often he sees no discernable difference between our lives and his apart from the fact that we go to church.  He simply believes that we need to go to church, but he is able to live like us without religion.  On the other hand when that same neighbor sees us forgoing the things of this world, sacrificially caring for the hurting, and generously investing in the Kingdom of God he will ask why.  When we explain we are motivated to live this way, because of the gospel of the grace of God our “light will burst forth like the dawn” (vs. 8) and our “righteousness will go before us” (vs. 8).  God will move and our neighbors, friends, and families will be saved.

Further, the Lord says if his people will worship him in this way he will answer when they call.  God does not respond to those who practice dead religion, but when those whose hearts have been transformed by grace sacrificially love others God is moved to respond to them.  He no longer closes his ear to their cries, but answers their prayers.  Are your prayers not being answered?  Is it because you are practicing self-centered religion; seeking your own pleasure?

Next the Lord reiterates this teaching.  In vs. 9b-10 he says that if his people will “take away the yoke” that is work to remove oppression and will stop the “pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness” or being judgmental and “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted”, then he will indeed bless.  To pour ourselves out on behalf of the hungry means to deny self and faithfully love them as we love ourselves.

Again, the Lord promises that if we will worship him in this way he will guide us and satisfy our needs and desires.  He will strengthen us and we will be like a refreshing spring of water to the lost world around us.  We will be the “repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in” (vs. 12).  That is to say we will be agents of transformation and restoration to the fallen world.

Finally, in the last if/then series the Lord promises that if his people will honor the Sabbath by not seeking to gratify self then he will cause us to delight in him.  Our true worship, as described in this passage, will result in satisfaction and resting in the Lord.  This transition to the Sabbath is interesting because up to this point one could get the impression that God is only interested in mercy ministry, yet here he specifically says to honor the Sabbath.  We see a balance here where God is showing the fullness of what it means to worship him.  Just as it is wrong to focus on the physical (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.) and neglect the spiritual (church attendance, daily quiet time, prayer) it is equally wrong to focus on the spiritual to the neglect of the physical.

The focus on one over the other is an indication of a deficiency in our Christian faith. This is demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus.  In Matt 23:23 Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were extremely faithful in their religious practice of tithing to the point of giving 10% even of their spices.  Yet they neglected the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”.  It would be as if you were so committed to tithing that when you found a dollar on the street you were faithful to give a dime, yet when you walked by a hungry man you refused to give him the remaining $0.90.  What good is your commitment to tithe if you have no mercy for the hungry?

His solution was not to stop tithing and start helping the poor, but to do the former without neglecting the latter.  In other words true followers of Christ would worship God in word and deed.  They would spend time in God’s word; reading, praying, and fasting.  They would gather together to worship and learn from the preaching of God’s word.  However, those things would not be done in a vacuum.  The word of God would penetrate their hearts and be obediently applied to their lives.  It would result in righteous action not passive complacency.

How can we live this way when our hearts and our culture are sinfully self-centered?  The answer is the same for us as it was for Israel.  In chapter 59 God said that his “hand was not shortened, that it cannot save” (vs. 1) and he promised the people that a redeemer would come to Zion (vs. 20).  That redeemer is Jesus Christ and he came to free us from the bondage of self-love and sinful complacency by denying self and laying down his life for us while we were self-centered sinners.  He came to give us a new heart that loves God fully and thus loves others sacrificially.  He saved us that we might worship God fully by fulfilling the good works that he prepared for us (Eph 2:10).

By This We Know Love…

I love 1st John, it’s one of my favorite books in the New Testament.  As I was reading this morning I stopped on chapter 3 verses 16 – 18.  I spent some time thinking about what this passage means and thought I would share what the Lord showed me.  It is a hard teaching, but one I believe the church desperately needs to apply.

As John discusses love, he says that we are to love one another (vs 11).  This has been taught from the beginning, it’s Christianity 101 so to speak.  As such, John says that we have assurance of our salvation because we love the brothers (vs 14).  In fact, those who don’t love are said to remain in death.  So, if one of the basic results of our faith is love for the brethren and we find assurance in this, it seems important to know what this love looks like practically.

Fortunately, John very clearly describes this love.  It is demonstrated perfectly by Christ in that He willingly and sacrificially laid down His life for us (vs 16).  That, is the incarnation of Christian love that Christ gave us, and it is the model that His followers will emulate.  As if John knew that the readers, like the Apostles with Jesus, would be quick to say I will die for the brothers; He quickly shows the true status of their hearts.  Just like Jesus many times before, he does this by going after their wallets!

He says that if we see our brother in physical need and could help but don’t then the love of God does not abide in us (vs 17).  In other words, we have no assurance of our salvation.  John says if we don’t care enough about others to help them then we do not love God.  Why does he tie these two things together?  Isn’t it possible to love God, but not help the hurting?

When we understand that Jesus laid down his life for us and we respond in repentance and faith God gives us a new heart.  God’s love abides in that heart.  God then tests the genuineness of our love by placing the poor and needy in our paths.  If we have a new heart that loves God we will display that love by sacrificially giving of all that He has given us to help the hurting around us.  However, if we do not have a new heart we will exhibit that by hoarding God’s blessings for ourselves.  This practice of hoarding demonstrates either a lack of love for the brothers, a lack of trust in God, or both.  In either case John says it illustrates the true condition of our hearts.

Certainly, we are called to care for our families and to wisely plan for the future.  However, when we are so consumed with these that we ignore the needs of others we must ask ourselves, does the love of God abide in me?  When we allow our earthly desires to consume the resources God graciously provides, with no thought of sacrificing for the care of others, we must ask ourselves, does the love of God abide in me?  This is a teaching that I daily struggle to apply in my own life, but it is none the less the word of God and the true follower of Christ must be conformed to it.