The Marks of the Christian

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And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11, NIV

The Marks of the Christian

Regularly reading the New Testament ought to remind us of the ways contemporary Christians fall far short of the vision of the Christian life found among the early Christians.

I’m convinced that this shortfall is rooted, at least in part, by our neglect of the Bible as our rule of faith and life.

Faithful friends

As the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, we note his obvious affection for them (verses 3 and 8) and his gratitude for they way they have come alongside him in his gospel ministry (verse 5). Despite the personal cost and the difficulty of the Apostolic work entrusted to Paul, the fellowship of Christians like those in Philippi have made the burden more bearable as together they have entrusted themselves to the grace of Christ.

Personal transformation

These faithful brothers and sisters in Christ Paul reminds of God’s transformative purpose. “[H]e who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion in the day of Christ Jesus” (verse 6b).

Who among us doesn’t need to be reminded of Christ’s promise to work in us by faith the transformation we need so that when we meet him face to face we may step into a new creation free from the curse of sin and death?

We’re not yet the people we will become, but those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus are moving–if at time haltingly–in the direction of Christ-likeness.

Paul’s prayer

Paul shares with his readers the content of his prayer for them and I suspect that Paul would pray the same for us today. This prayer shows us at least three marks of the Christian, that is characteristics of one who is a growing disciple of Christ. 

Able to discern (verse 9-10a)

Christians ought to be loving. And the love that marks our lives must be, according to Paul, a love that has some attendant qualities. Christian love is marked by growing “knowledge and insight.”

Knowledge and insight of what? It’s difficult to know precisely what Paul means here. At the very least it would seem to imply an experiential knowledge of God and of God’s revelation of Himself to us in the Bible. It is this knowledge that enables us to “discern what is best,” that is what most closely aligns with God’s revealed will.

Pure and blameless (verse 10) 

This discernment, rooted as it is in a love that is marked by knowledge and insight, produces in our lives a purity and a blamelessness. The concepts of purity and blamelessness seem to be neglected in contemporary Christianity.

All Christians are positionally pure and blameless because the obedience of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross have been credited to our account. However, what Paul is talking about here is volitional purity and blameless–it is based upon choice and upon actions that together form a way of life.

Fruit of righteousness (verse 11)

Christians are expected to produce the “fruit of righteousness” that is the product derived from the above and that is expressed inwardly before it is expressed outwardly.

It’s not difficult to see how we all have a long way to go on this. Ask God what needs to change in your life so that you’re not only willing, but able to devote yourself to Him in a way that leads to transformation.

Finding the holy in everyday life

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Finding Holy in the Suburbs

IVP – October 2018 – $16.00

How can we be holy when our lives are a mess?

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I doubt that any of us is today precisely where we thought we’d be when we were, say, eighteen. Our lives play out in ways we never thought they would.

Those who journey through life without succumbing to the vices that are so easy to cultivate, do so because they have paid at least some attention to the ways that Jesus stepped into a less-than-ideal situation and in so doing redeemed.

Regardless of where you live or whether you’re a man or a woman, what kind of car (or minivan you drive) Ashley Hales’s book can re-orient you in the midst of the less-than-ideal or, sometimes more dangerous, when you think you’re living the dream.

It’s availably for pre-order now and comes out in October

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A physical faith in a disembodied age

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Fishing the Lehigh River

We live in a disembodied age. Think about it. If you’re like me, most of your communication with others takes place by text or email. We may speak on the phone regularly, but many of us live miles from our closest friends and rarely have protracted face-to-face conversations. In fact, our common means of communication tend to assume that we are biological computers sharing discrete data packets with one another. This assumption is obviously false, but is it also detrimental to our flourishing?

I have recently started fishing the waters near my home in Bethlehem (PA). I had always envisioned fishing as an essentially passive activity. The popular perception is that fishing is essentially a form of outside napping. It’s not. In many ways fishing is very active both mentally and, to a lesser degree, physically. Every cast of the line you’re thinking about where to place the lure or the fly. Every time you reel you’re trying to mimic the action of the lure you’re using. You’re looking for evidence of trout activity. You get the idea.

In this regard, fishing is an awful lot like Christian spirituality. Fishing requires the alignment of our minds, our actions, and it requires a store of wisdom that comes through experience. Our Christian faith calls upon us to be Christians inwardly as well as outwardly. We are invited to a faith that embraces thinking and acting. And over a life of practicing the faith we find that we begin to have a sort of wisdom to offer others. It’s a wisdom that’s shaped by, among other things, our physical experiences and practices.

Christians have historically affirmed the goodness, if brokenness, of the created order. As a result the Christian faith has typically valued our physicality rather than running from it. Consider that the two most important signs and symbols of our faith involve the sprinkling of a child or convert with water, and the consecration and reception of bread and wine. These are tactile experiences that are central to our faith. 

I worry that my evangelical faith has not paid sufficient attention to physicality. Online campuses. Virtual communion. Symbol-less sanctuaries. Perhaps we’ve taken things further than we ought, or than what is helpful in our present moment.

When it had the choice the ancient church chose to affirm the value of images of God under the rubric that in the incarnation we have permission to represent Jesus as both truly God, and also a Palestinian jew. The second Council of Nicaea restored the practice of venerating icons to the universal church.

Of course, as a reformed Christian I am part of tradition that looks on iconography with a degree of skepticism. My own conviction is the Christian traditions should continue to “agree to disagree” and to do so charitably. I value icons for aesthetic rather than dogmatic reasons.

God has given us bodies, and God has placed us in a physical world. Any spirituality that fails to account for this essential truth is surely deficient.

 

Does studying economics make you selfish?

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A fascinating discussion took place on Morning Edition just a few moments ago. Shankar Vedantum shared the results of a recent study that tries to determine whether there is a connection between the classic economics ideal of “rational self-interest” and generosity. If you want to listed to it, go here.

It turns out that listening to a lesson on self-interest corresponds to a 50% reduction in generosity.

Some subjects were given $20; other subjects were not given any money. Both were told that those with cash could make a single deal with the others, and that it was not subject to negotiation–it would be final.

Under these circumstances the average deal was close to a 50/50 split. On average the person with the cash gave the other person $8.50.

After listening to a lecture on self-interest that average amount was reduced to $4.50–an approximately 50% reduction. 

What’s the lesson?

Surely part of it is that we respond positively to expectations of what normal behavior is. 

Would a church where the pastor regularly talks about generosity as a normal part of discipleship be a more generous church?

What do you think? Tell me below in the comments.

The Bible and America – Five Guiding Principles

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America is having problems with the Bible at the moment. Political liberals and conservatives seem to be cherry picking verses in order to justify their own assumptions.

In just over a week there have been marches against the inauguration of Donald Trump, for the rights of women, for the sanctity of human life, and against Trump’s order to halt immigration from several primarily Muslim countries.

The Bible was present in all of these protests in some way, shape or form.

What do we make of this? For one thing, it goes to show that the Christian faith remains a vital part of American culture. The faith we Americans collectively espouse is, as Ross Douthat has pointed out, largely a heretical blend of Christianity, individualism, and moralism. This isn’t anything particularly new. Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity pointed out how even in the early Republic, this uniquely American blend trumped the classical Calvinism that came across with the early settlers.

Here are five guiding principles about how to employ the Bible in addressing actions taken by the government of a nation-state.

  1. The Bible is the rule of faith and practice for the Christian church. It is not, strictly speaking, binding upon the civil magistrate.
  2. The Bible does, however, point to laws of nature that are beyond it. Those laws of nature are binding upon all people everywhere. They are discoverable by the use of reason guided by tradition. However, in our current context these laws will remain disputed.
  3. The purpose of the state is to punish the evildoer and to protect its citizenry. This may include limiting refugee resettlement and immigration.
  4. In extremis, the church may petition the civil magistrate by appealing to scripture and reason. Generally speaking, however, the church’s purpose is not to be conflated with that of the government. See Westminster Confession XXXI:iv.
  5. It is an abuse of Scripture to use it in such a way as to contort it to fit a preconceived political purpose. If you wish to make a political point, make it. I’d prefer that you not cherry pick scripture in order to do it.

All this isn’t to suggest that I am in favor of the draconian measures the Trump administration has enacted (which have been blocked, incidentally, in federal court). My point is that Christians must be cautious in how we handle the Bible and apply it to policies enacted by the secular state.