Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Book of Hebrews: Old Testament meets the New in Christ


“As the name imports, Systematic Theology has for its object the gathering of all that the Scriptures teach as to what we are to believe and do, and the presenting of all the elements of this teaching in a symmetrical system. The human mind must seek unity in all its knowledge...The method of construction is inductive.

It rests upon the results of Exegesis for its foundation. Passages of Scripture ascertained and interpreted are its data. These when rightly interpreted reveal their own relations and place in the system of which the Person and work of Christ is the center.” -A.A. Hodge, quoted in Credenda Agenda, Vol. 4, No. 5, p. 1.

Many think of Romans when they think about a systematic theology of Christianity. But there is another book that speaks forth systematic theology in my view, the book of Hebrews.

We are not sure who wrote the book of Hebrews. Some think it was the apostle Paul, who wrote about one third of the New Testament. Others think it could be Barnabas or Apollos. But no one knows for sure. In fact if you look at Hebrews 1 there is no initial greeting in the letter which is very uncommon for a new testament letter. Hebrews was written in AD 67, so if it was written by Paul it would be his last letter. Hebrews is a fairly long letter, encompassing 13 chapters. A little shorter than Romans. But like Romans, Hebrews is a very theologically rich letter. We often talk about the theological power and depth of Romans, but Hebrews to me is just as theologically deep and instructive.

Hebrews chapter 1 illustrates the beauty and depth, it says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”

As we can see from the title Hebrews is written to Hebrews, to Jewish Christians who understand Jesus Christ from the backdrop of the Old Testament. So Hebrews goes into a lot of detail about how the gospel of Jesus Christ rests within the nexus of the Old Testament, as a fulfillment of the history of Israel and the law of Moses. But Hebrews also makes it clear Christ’s supremacy over those things, and as one who is not simply an angel or a created being, but one is himself God with us. In fact in Hebrews 1 and Hebrews 3 we see the writer telling us Jesus is greater than angels, and greater than Moses. And leading up to chapter 10 in Hebrews we see the argument made that Christ is the perfect eternal “high priest” for Israel and indeed all the people of the world. He is one who stands in for us as the perfect sacrifice.

In Hebrews 3:1-6 we see how Jesus is explained as being greater than even Moses, the great patriarch of the Old Testament. It says, “Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. 2 He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. 3 Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. 4 For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. 5 “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. 6 But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.”

We also see one of the key themes of Hebrews is the command to not fall away. Particularly in chapters 2 and 3 we see that message. But it is echoed throughout the book. It was common in Israel’s history for generations to begin to drift away from God and go after idols, so the writer of Hebrews reminds the Hebrew readers to continue steadfastly in the faith, not drifting away.

We find a stark reminder about falling away at the end of Hebrews 3. The author of Hebrews compares the danger of falling away to the Israelites who were saved from bondage in Egypt only to die in the wilderness because of their unbelief.

It says, verses 12-19 “12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. 15 As has just been said:

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”

16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.”

Then in chapter 5 we see an important reminder about the promises of God found in Jesus. All the promises of God are “yes” in Christ! Did you know that? And the author of Hebrews compares these promises, to the promises God made to Abraham.

Hebrews 6:13-14 says, “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” 15 And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.”

The challenge there is of course to continue waiting patiently, and then after we have waited, we receive what was promised, just as Abraham did. And Abraham waited a total of 25 years for God’s promise to be fulfilled. Are you good at waiting?

In the next few chapters we see more warnings against falling away, we see Jesus compared to Melchizedek in the Old Testament. And we see Jesus described as the perfect high priest of a new covenant, a new agreement between God and man.

In Hebrews 9 we see a beautiful depiction of the gospel, it says, “14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”

And again at the end of chapter 9, “27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

Then in Chapter 10 we see a challenge to persevere in the faith to the end, it says, ‘19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” -Hebrews 10:19-25

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess! Let us draw near to God with sincerity of heart. And with a deep assurance with the faith we have in God. And let’s encourage one another toward love and good works. And heres an important reminder for people today in the COVID era, let us NOT give up meeting together. We’ve gotta meet together, it’s a command of God. We as the church belong together.

At the end of chapter 10 we see a severe challenge not to continue sinning after we come to faith in Christ. It says, Hebrews 10:26-31 “26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

That’s a very severe reminder isn’t it? But it’s important to recall that God is a serious God. He expects us to obey his commands and to repent away from sin, and to live in closeness with Jesus Christ our savior. God will judge his people. I believe that. On judgment day, I’m sure many people will be surprised, who goes into paradise, and who is turned away. Everything will become clear about who people really were on that day.

Hebrews chapter 11 and 12 are two of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible. Hebrews 11 is the faith chapter, and we go through a history of Israel’s greatest heroes, and how their faith in God guided them to do great things.

It speaks for itself, so I’ll just read for you the first 12 verses of Hebrews 11, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

And it continues, by faith Isaac, by faith Jacob, by faith Joseph, by faith Moses, all the great heroes of the OT are mentioned.

Hebrews chapter 12, is just extremely powerful and theologically deep. It says in the first 3 verses, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

That is the challenge to focus on Jesus, and turn away form sin, and focus again on Jesus, and do not lose heart!

Then we get the challenge to endure correction from God, it says, “7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.”

Remember if you’re disciplined by God, that’s good, because that means you’re His child!

Verses 14 and 15 remind us to be holy and live in peace: 14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

And at the end of Hebrews 12, it says, “28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.””

God is a consuming fire. So we should reverence and fear Him, and let us be thankful for the Lord we serve.

In conclusion today, the book of Hebrews is a rich, theologically deep and beautiful book of the Bible that reminds us that the history of Israel, the Old Testament is inexorably connected to all the new testament and of course to Jesus Christ our savior. It’s all connected. And we’re part of that story today. It all fits together as one concise narrative telling us who we are, what our history is, what our present is, and what our future is. And all of it put together is all about Jesus Christ our savior. 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

What is Holiness Theology?


In a nutshell, what is holiness theology? Very simply holiness theology involves two distinctives: One, falling away/losing one’s salvation is possible through apostasy (departing the faith) or through willful sin (refusing to repent of active sin the Holy Spirit convicts a believer to turn from). Arminians would tend to affirm this concept, Calvinists would tend to deny this perspective. Two, holiness theology affirms the concept of “entire sanctification.” This is broadly, the idea that believers can be mature, pure, and victorious over sin in Christ. They can be preserved blameless until the coming of Jesus Christ. This tends to be the view of some Arminians, and tends to be a view disputed by Calvinists. ‘

Holiness or sin? That is the question for Christian experience post-conversion. The classic fundamental divide, between the views of George Whitefield and John Wesley, two champions of these divergent views was that Whitefield and the reformed crowd believed that Christians could never stop sinning in this life, and John Wesley and the Methodists believed that Christians could overcome all sin and live pure in Christ in this life.

Of course there are a broad range of views within these theological traditions, with much complexity and debate. But the crux of the issue is sanctification. Both sides would generally agree on what constitutes justification. Justification is the work of Christ in the believer that removes the stain of sin, regenerates the believer, and makes them new. But sanctification, the process by which a new believer is slowly over their lives transformed into the likeness of Christ, is the issue of debate. A Calvinist would be more likely to say that sanctification is a process that continues throughout the whole life of a believer and is never finished in this life, while a Wesleyan would likely say sanctification is a lifelong process, but a point comes in the future where sin has been overcome by the believer and they are living in a state of mature faith. 

Holiness theology would be placed as part of the Arminian theological tradition, a subset of which is called Wesleyanism. However, various groups of churches and independent churches consider themselves “holiness movement churches” not necessarily within the realm of Wesleyanism. Common church denominations identifying with these beliefs include Methodists, Wesleyans, Salvation Army, Pentecostals, some Baptists, and others.

Holiness movement churches, like the one I pastor, affirm all major theological perspectives of evangelicalism, including inerrancy/infallibility, the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, total depravity, penal substitutionary atonement, and heaven and hell. The two distinctives of holiness theology are of course again, conditional security in Christ (falling away is possible) and entire sanctification (Christians can live holy in Christ).



Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Book of Titus: Paul writes to the young Pastor in Crete


“A television program preceding the 1988 Winter Olympics featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing, impossible as that sounds. Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns. When that was mastered, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting, "Left!" and "Right!" As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skiers' word. It was either complete trust or catastrophe.

What a vivid picture of the Christian life! In this world, we are in reality blind about what course to take. We must rely solely on the Word of the only One who is truly sighted--God Himself. His Word gives us the direction we need to finish the course.”
-Robert W. Sutton

And that is what we’ll see in the book of Titus today, is that the Apostle Paul is writing to his young pastor friend Titus, giving him guidance, left and right, faith, obedience, and living out what we they believe on the corrupt little island of Crete.

The book of Titus was written in AD 65 or 66, near the end of Paul’s ministry, right around the same time that Paul wrote 1st and 2nd Timothy, the classic pastoral letters. So these 3 letters today, are really letters written by a senior leader, to more junior leaders. So like a letter written by the head pastor, or the deacon, over many churches, to local pastors throughout their mission field. And the mission field we see here on the screen, which included the ancient middle east, all connected by the Mediterranean Sea.

Paul is writing from a city called Nicopolis in Greece, to give instructions to Titus about issues within the church. Titus us pastoring a small church on the island of Crete, a very corrupt little island with lots of problems and already in the church there are false teachers and problems that must be addressed.

So let’s just dive into it. We get Paul’s opening words and opening greeting and he gets right into instructions for elders in the church. What is an elder? An elder is someone who is a senior leader in the church. Generally, you have a pastor, or a group of pastors, and then you have a senior committee or group of elders or leaders who advise and consent on the development of the church.

So here’s what Paul says. Titus 1:6-9 “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

In the Salvation Army our “elders” are what we call the corps council, made up of senior soldiers in the church who display a maturity to make decisions for the good of the body. The elders, or senior soldiers help care for the needs of the church, and help serve those in need. But they also lead the church, and mentor the younger believers.

Faithful elders are not easy to find, and we can see from the list of requirements for elders that they must be mature believers, self controlled, holding firmly to the truth, blameless, faith, and so on. A group of elders is really the backbone of the church. And that’s something we’ve really lacked at the Owosso salvation army. And apparently it was still a need for the church in Crete because we see Paul giving instructions about what elders ought to be like.

I want to point out a few of the requirements here:
-Must not be over-bearing – So can’t be someone who enjoys power

-Must not be quick-tempered – can’t be someone who gets angry easily

-Must not pursue dishonest gain – can’t be a sort of used car salesman attitude about ministry

-Must not be violent – obviously someone who isn’t violent cant be an elder

-Must be Self controlled - self control is all about being able to moderate our lifestyle

-Must be Upright and holy - being upright implies a sense of divine accountability, a lifestyle that matches our talk

-Must be Disciplined - an elder has developed prayer time, bible reading, spiritual disciplines, they've crafted their lives to seek God

These are all not simply guidelines, but requirements for elders in the church. But it’s also just generally good teaching for how to live as a mature Christian.

A bit later in Titus, we hear about the moral corruption of the people of Crete. It says,

Titus 1:12-14 "One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” 13 This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith 14 and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth.”

Paul calls on Titus to rebuke his congregation sharply, so that they will turn away from lying, brutality, laziness, and gluttony. He also challenges them not to become legalistic followers of the Jewish law of Moses. He says teach them not to be ruled by Jewish myths or human commands, which were both common with old testament law of Moses ideas. Many of the churches were influenced by Jewish communities with these sort of ideas.

You can flip in your Bibles to Titus chapter 2. In chapter 2 we see Paul shifting to instructions about different groups generally within the church, he gives input for how older men should live, how older women should live, how younger men should live, how slaves should live, and then he closes out chapter two with the following powerful and beautiful statement that I want to read to you:

Titus 2:11-15 “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. 15 These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.”

I love love love studying 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus because these are words that apply to me very much as a pastor. Paul is writing as a pastor to a pastor, and that is really helpful for me to understand what my job is. But it’s also very powerful to see how God sums up the message of salvation here.

He says the grace of God has appeared, that’s Jesus, and there’s this open offer of salvation to everybody, everywhere. It’s blanket, open, to anyone. And what does that message say? It’s important to communicate to the Cretans, that it means saying “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions. And I think the same can be said and must be said to America today: That’s what it means to be a Christian, it means to say no to worldly passions. We’ve become a very decadent country, focused on our pleasure, pills, drugs, entertainment, fine foods, and we need to be challenged to set aside the passions of this world, and embrace self-control and godly living.

In fact Jesus Christ came to purify us, to make us a people for Himself, a special, set apart people, who are eager to good things, good works for Him, as we await the return of Jesus, the hope of eternal life in paradise.

Paul commands Titus to encourage and rebuke with all authority. Don’t let anyone treat you disrespectfully. Probably because Titus is a younger leader. Two keys: encouragement. Give people encouragement, help them to stay encouraged as Christians. But also, rebuke when necessary. Correct believers who are off course or need some correction.

Flip to chapter 3, and it says, Titus 3:1-2, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.”

We see Paul commanding believers to be subject to the government authorities. To be obedient in general. That’s something we struggle with, right? We don’t like obedience. But obedience to God and society is generally a good thing. Be ready to do good. Slander no one. Be considerate. And Be gentle.

Then Paul gives this incredibly powerful description of our past, our present, and our future, all in Christ, in Titus 3:3-8:

“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. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 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, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. 8 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.”

In this depiction of the gospel, we see that we’re saved not by anything we did, or because we were specially worthy, but because of God’s desire to show mercy to us. We see that our past lives were based on hatred, malice, and envy. We were enslaved to empty desires. But we see Paul emphasize being born again, being washed in rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Why is he emphasizing this? He’s talking to Cretans who excel in debauchery and worldly pleasures, so he knows he has to emphasize the new birth and the new way. And he concludes by saying we have become heirs, with the hope of eternal life.

So in conclusion today, let’s review what we learned from the book of Titus:

1. Elders must be mature Christians, upright in the faith

2. Believers should say “yes” to Jesus and “no” to worldly pleasures

3. We need to be encouraged and rebuked as believers

4. Believers should be subject to government and to each other

5. We are justified by grace and his mercy, through regeneration in the Holy Spirit

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Luther's View of Christian Liberty

Martin Luther's view of Christian liberty can best be summed up in this way; "A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one" (Luther, 1520).  Luther balances Christian liberty with service by indicating that there are two natures within the man, the spiritual and the sinful flesh. They are combating each other, so these sort of paradoxes come into play, where one is both completely free and also a dutiful servant of all.

But of course Luther indicates that one cannot have anything, such as freedom or duty, aside from in Christ Jesus the savior.  And there can be no hope or faith put in works to find a basis for liberty. Luther sees good works as those things which do not justify anyone before God, but are works that build toward the subjection of the fleshly nature to Christ. Also, he refers to fulfilling our call to please God in response to God's gift of salvation in Christ.

Martin Luther (1520) characterizes the joy of Christian liberty in this way: "Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought, himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith."

So Martin Luther views Christian liberty as being completely and totally justified in Christ Jesus from beginning to end by faith. And thus the Christian is completely free to do anything. But a real Christian will want to do good works and is under duty to do good works, but these works do not in any way threaten or improve their justification in Christ.

I would evaluate this in the following way: Obviously this is a ground breaking doctrine that changed how the entire world viewed salvation.  But as a Christian who values holiness theology I can't help but feel that he neglects the importance of holiness, which makes holiness not just a shove in the back for a Christian, but a necessity, a requirement for a Christian. And thus though justification is by Christ alone, a laziness to live in sin is possible and would threaten the salvation of the one living this way.  Luther's famous equation leaves no stark command to holiness, only a vague urge that you should do it, but leaves no requirement for it to be done.  This is where holiness theology succeeds, in more than just encouraging it, but making holiness a requirement of the faith, one must live it out and cooperate with the Spirit in obtaining entire sanctification. Instead Luther and Calvinists after left only a vague stand to suggest that sinning must continue until death, an unbiblical position in my view. Holiness theology offers us this great divine window to see, "Yes, you can be free from sin in this life, yes you can be holy." This to me is the essence of the conclusion of Luther's equation.  It is completed by holiness theology.

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