Having a Fighting Faith

When I was growing up, there were a few people in my church that everyone knew had something special in their spiritual life. I remember specifically Miss Juanita. I don’t really remember much about her other than that at the time that I knew her she was who you went to if you wanted someone to pray for you. Everyone knew that if someone was going to actually intercede for you, she was the one who would do it without fail. You also knew that her prayers got answered.

I remember that Miss Juanita didn’t have a whole lot and that if she had had a husband he was no longer in her life. She had few local family members and a small, older home. But, we all knew that she had a faith in the Lord that was unshakable.

So how does someone get a reputation like Miss Juanita? How does anyone achieve a faith so strong that others are drawn to it? How does anyone look so much like Christ that people actively ask for intercession with God? How can you have a faith that is unshakable, a faith that holds you together in the face of tragedy, a faith that fights?

Discipline.

When I think of discipline, I often think of punishment before I think of anything else. Fortunately, this is a limited view of what discipline really is. Punishment is a form of discipline, but it is the form that comes from without. This form can help steer someone towards a right path, but true and lasting changes come from within.

Lasting changes are ones created by taking hold of external truths and pursuing them with fervor and tenacity from your inner self. This is what’s known as self discipline. This means that discipline, or self discipline, is not something you have, but rather something that you do. Also, it’s not something done for the sake of itself but for the realization of the goal or purpose for which you grasp. In other words, discipline is the process or tool that you use to bring about the change that you seek.

Once, I thought this meant drudgery. I used to think that self discipline meant that I had to stop having fun so I could go and do the work that Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthian church: “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians‬ ‭9:27‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

Paul is correct in his assessment of self discipline, but I was incorrect in my interpretation. Terry Crews once said, “why do you hate discipline? It’s just training!” If discipline is just training, then that means that I can take part and exercise in spiritual training.

Thinking of the spiritual disciplines this way lets me move on from the thoughts of punishment and into a healthy understanding of Paul’s message. It also puts perspective on what Paul means when he says “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” ‭‭(1 Timothy‬ ‭4:7-10‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Training myself in spiritual discipline let’s me become more godly. If I must put off my sinful nature, then to do so can only come by putting on a nature of righteousness. However, since I am surrounded in what Paul describes as a body of death, I can do no such thing. So what then can I do?

Amy Cuddy puts it this way, “Fake it till you become it.” Jeff Haden says that you should change your language from “I can’t” to “I don’t” so that you no longer have a choice to make but an identity to fulfill. Paul’s advice is, instead of being a slave to your sinful nature, become a slave to Christ. That is, assume the identity of one who is righteous and do what they do. Before long, you will be more like one who is righteous. Before long, you will become like Miss Juanita, so strong in faithfulness that others come to you for prayer and guidance, not for your own virtue but by the virtue of the One who is inside you.

In my next post, I will begin describing the disciplines of the spiritual life. These exercises will help to train your faith so that it can stand up and fight when the world is doing it’s best to defeat you.

Why is Judaism important to Christians??

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past 20 years, it’s that I am assuredly not Jewish. I am neither Jewish by nationality, nor am I Jewish by religion. These seem like obvious facts, and they are. However, Judaism and the Hebrew nation are extraordinarily important to Christians. The two, more than any other religions, share a deep and common foundation. The only problem is that many (if not most) Jews disagree with this claim.

This disagreement comes to a point primarily with the identity of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. Evidence of this disagreement is apparent in the gospels long before Jesus was crucified. While Jesus was performing his ministry throughout Judea and Galilee, he rarely had a moment without some heat from the local religious authorities. The vehemence and vitriol surrounding the controversy was exacerbated when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time and his body mysteriously disappeared from his tomb. Since then the divisions have grown and solidified, becoming a wall with a narrow gate that only a few go between.

A Troubling Message

Christian scripture includes two testaments, conveniently known as the Old and the New.  The Christian Old Testament includes the entirety of Jewish scripture which was concluded approximately four hundred years before Jesus walked the earth.

This tells us one very important thing about Christians: we believe that our religion is a continuation of the Jewish religion.

That’s right, our Gospel is the Jewish Gospel. Everything that Christians believe is based off of everything that the Hebrew people wrote as scripture. Without God selecting Abraham and establishing the covenant to make him the father of a great nation, Christians would not be here.

If Christians believe that they practice Judaism 2.0 then they have to be getting this notion from somewhere. This idea of Christianity being the continuation is taught in several forms throughout the new testament but one specific occasion really heats things up for us and points to why people like me are concerned with Judaism.

In the book of Matthew, right before Jesus was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death, he told a story to the chief priest and elders about some tenants and a wealthy landowner. The landowner had a large and fertile plot. This plot was an investment for him but he needed to take care of other matters. In the mean time, the land needed to produce income for him so he hired some tenants to produce a crop. In their contract, the tenants would get a place to live and money and food to live on so long as they sent the agreed upon portion of the profits back to the landowner.

Unfortunately for the landowner, the tenants did not keep their end of the bargain. At the appointed time the landowner sent some of his men to collect his portion, but the tenants abused them, murdering one, beating another, and attempting to kill the third. The landowner had cause to seize his land at this point, but being merciful he sent another round of servants, more this time than the last. Again, the tenants abused the landowner’s men and killed a few, totally disregarding the contract and disrespecting their benefactor’s wishes.

Finally, the landowner, still filled with mercy, sent his own son as representative for him. The son would go and collect the debt owed to the landowner as his family member and personal envoy. Surely, the tenants would realize how serious the landowner was this time since he sent his son. Again, the tenants were filled with disdain for their benefactor and jealousy over his possessions. They took his son and murdered him.

Jesus pauses here and asks his listeners what they think happens next. The elders respond:

 “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus then says a peculiar thing. He brings up a piece of the Psalms in response the the chief priests.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’”?

Seeing the looks of confusion in their eyes and the question on their lips, Jesus explains what his means.

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

So this is where Jesus identifies two things:

  1. The elders and the chief priest are the builders. They were the tenants sent to prepare a harvest for their generous landowner.
  2. People like me will inherit the landowner’s property instead.

As you can tell, this is highly inflammatory. If Jesus is the Son of God as he identifies himself elsewhere, then he is the stone that the builders rejected and he is the one who will crush them. Jesus became that for Christians and we are broken at his feet. For Christians, Jesus is the cornerstone of the religion. Without him, the whole thing crumbles and we are all fools. However, this means that the kingdom of heaven was taken from the Hebrew patriarchs.

This is really unfortunate for someone whose identity is based on God selecting their forefathers to make a nation that will last forever.

Hope For the Future

Fortunately, this is not where the story ends.

In my last post, we talked about the primary differentiator between covenants and contracts which is that covenants, once established, never pass away. Before the New Covenant (which forms the premise of the New Testament), there were several covenants God made with his people. The good news for Hebrew people is that all of these covenants are still in effect. That means that all of God’s promises, including the fact that there will always be a remnant, will come to pass. It also means that through the Hebrew people, all of the nations are blessed.

If Jesus is who he says he is, then Christianity provides answers to the covenants that many Jews are still waiting to be fulfilled. Through Him, the nation of Israel gets to lay claim to the best of all claims. They are, in fact, the people of the promise, and I am only grafted in to that blessing.

The book of Acts and later the book of Hebrews demonstrate and explain this truth in depth. One of the most important messages of Acts is that that the Gospel is first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. The pattern of Acts demonstrates this truth. The first portion of the book is dedicated to the spread of the Gospel throughout Israel. Then the Gospel is spread to the Jews outside of Judea and then to the Gentiles. Hebrews then goes on to explain to the Jewish people the meaning of the Gospel according to the history of the Hebrew nation.

If anything is clear, the Gospel came first to the Jewish nation and then through them. This is good news, both in that it restores the identity of the chosen people and that Gentiles like me can share a heritage with them.

Are you a Legalist? (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed two ends of a spectrum for how people relate to the Law: Legalism vs. Antinomianism. The two positions pose the question “What do we do with the Law?” and then go about answering it through one of two methods: either total and zealous obedience which risks missing the point of the Law entirely or lack of regard to the importance of the Law exhibited through total disobedience. That Law, which is the set of holy ordinances handed down to Moses and then to the Hebrew people, has been a highly debated issue amongst Christian thinkers for almost two thousand years.

To avoid the traps of legalism and antinomianism we need to understand the concept of biblical covenants.  Effectively, a covenant works like a contract. However, unlike a contract, once a covenant exists it never passes away. Regardless of whether either of the parties holds up their end of the agreement both parties continue to be responsible to their obligations should a violation occur. Since God is always faithful and true, this means only one side of the covenant is likely to fail (Hint: it’s ours).

Throughout history, there have been a series of these covenants between man and God, forming the backbone of the religions of Judaism and Christianity as well as the cultural identity of Israel and the Jewish nationality. For this post, I will focus on just two covenants, though the rest are intricately linked to them.

First in order is the Mosaic Covenant. This is the covenant that resulted in both the formation of the Hebrew nation as well as the establishment of the Law. With this covenant, God performed a decisive move in upholding his previous covenant with Abram to make him into a great nation. He also delivered to His people a strong and lasting revelation of who He is through the Law and the covenant rituals. Finally, God established once and for all that there is good and there is evil. Failure to keep the terms of the covenant was proof of the evil living within the hearts men.

Second in order is what we call the New Covenant. This covenant is the one ushered in by Jesus’ work on Earth and reveals to us the grace of God. The Mosaic Covenant had quite a bit of language about what would happen to those who failed to uphold its words. This is what led entire sects of Jewish zealots (the Legalists) to seek perfection in keeping the commands of God. The New Covenant showed us that it is not by works, but by grace that we are saved. This then led to the people (the Antinomians) totally ignoring the Law and living as they pleased since salvation has been accomplished for us. We know that neither approach is correct, so we still have to figure out how to relate to the Law.

Remember the rules of a covenant? The covenant remains in tact regardless of whether one of the parties keeps their end of the deal. The New Covenant acts as a wraparound covenant, where in the owner pays the debt for the former and now owns a new debt from the debtor. In Jesus, the debt for the Mosaic covenant was paid. God, in his goodness, knew that man had no hope of upholding their end of the agreement. He clothed Himself in flesh and became a man in order to fulfill man’s side of the agreement for him leaving us a spectators as He works out our salvation for us.

Today the Mosaic covenant remains as a testimony against us, showing us just how far short of acceptable we are. However, the good news of the Gospel is that all God really wants from us is our love and worship. He is willing to go to great lengths to demonstrate His love for us and asks only that we turn from our sins and worship Him alone. Jesus even instructs us on how we can show God that we love him:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. -John 14:15 (ESV)

The Bible is full of God’s commands, so what is Jesus saying here if man cannot save himself through Law? Jesus goes on in John 14 to describe how God the Father will send a helper, The Holy Spirit, to remind us of his commands and all the things that Jesus has done. The Holy Spirit will help us to relate to theLaw properly and rely on God to do the impossible, which is to save man through the fulfillment of His covenants. In order to cure ourselves from legalism, we have to accept the good news that Jesus did the work for us. If we glorify God through repentance and worship, then we will do what he says, not out of requirement but out of love for him and an outpouring of our faith in him. Finally, through the steady and faithful work of the Holy Spirit, we will show our love for the Father through the evidence of keeping His commands, first through loving God and second through loving our neighbor as our self.

When we trust God and leave the work of salvation to him, the Law is no longer a testimony against us. It then becomes a revelation of who God is. Through the Law, we can know Him. We can know how He thinks, what He likes, and the things that He values. Through the Law, we can revel in His glory, in awe that He has accomplished what we cannot. This is the cure for Legalism, loving God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. All else will be added to you.

How can a young person stay pure?

By obeying your word.

I have tried hard to find you—

don’t let me wander from your commands.

I have hidden your word in my heart,

that I might not sin against you.

I praise you, O LORD

teach me your decrees.

I have recited aloud

all the regulations you have given us.

I have rejoiced in your laws

as much as in riches.

I will study your commandments

and reflect on your ways.

I will delight in your decrees

and not forget your word.

~Psalm 119:9-16 (NLT)