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Righteousness

The Sin-Killer

You want to know how cool the Bible is?  It has a story about a guy who rams a spear through two people having sex.  And on top of that, God is so pleased with this action that He makes an eternal covenant of peace with the killer right there on the spot.  The young killer's name was Phineas (yes, I would love to name a son after him), and his story is found in Numbers 25. Now, I have already written about my sick tastes in being drawn to stories like this (see previous blog post here), so I won't do so again here.  Instead, I want to focus on why God was so pleased with what happened.

One commandment that God repeatedly gives His people is that they should not intermix with unbelievers.  Israel was to remain separate from the nations around them, and God's reasoning behind commanding this was that shackling yourself in marriage to an unbeliever is about the most sure way to corrupt your faith that can be found (Exodus 34:12-16).  If you marry a pagan, it is very likely that he or she will eventually lead you off into some aspect or another of paganism.  Thus, in the New Testament as well, those in the church are given the command to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14).  To do so is purely disobedient and utterly foolish, no matter what kind of ridiculous excuse the believer gives about "evangelistic dating" or whatever.

Well, in Numbers 25, this was exactly the way that Satan was ambushing the people of God.  He sent a bunch of hot Moabite girls into the camp and all of the stupid Israelite guys were chasing after them.  Then, when they invited the boys to the sacrifices of their gods, these lust-sick idiots went right along with them.

In judgment of these acts, God told Moses to "Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel" (Numbers 25:4).  So, Moses gives the order to the judges of Israel.  And while they are standing there discussing this, and while the godly ones were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting because of the sad state of the people, a fool named Zimri walks by with a Moabite whore named Cozbi, giggling and making googly-eyes at each other as they made their way toward Zimri's tent (okay the giggling and googly-eyes aren't in the text, but you get the picture).  At this point, Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, grabs a spear and follows them into the bedroom where he shish-kabobs them right there on the spot in the act (Numbers 25:7-8).

God's pleasure with this act of justice is made immediately known.  He tells Moses that Phineas has turned back His wrath against the people of Israel, and He gives as His reason for this that "[Phineas] was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy" (verse 11).  Apparently this is a similar case to what I wrote yesterday: if we will uphold God's holiness in our lives, then He will not have to show Himself holy in judging us.  Likewise, if we show His jealousy for the righteousness of His people in our lives, then He won't have to show it in judging us in that jealousy.

Phineas, then, becomes the model sin-killer for us.  The tabernacle used to sit in the middle of the Israelite camp, but in the New Covenant each believer becomes the temple that houses the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).  And just as the godly ones were weeping at the tabernacle for the sin that was in the camp, when we bring sin into our lives it grieves the Holy Spirit who dwells within (Ephesians 4:30).  So we need to become like one who would take up the spear and put sin to death with God's jealousy for His Name.  We need to be ruthless in the way that we stomp out disobedience in our own hearts.  Let this young man be a role model to you and look on your sins not as delicious distractions that you would hate to lose, but as an enemy in the camp who needs to be killed violently and immediately.

Changing Clothes

Most presentations of the gospel preach our clothes off but leave us naked afterward.  Okay, that was a rather provocative first sentence, but it gives us an image that I believe can help us explain some of the negative effects that most contemporary offers of the gospel produce. The great majority of the time when we hear the gospel preached, what is preached is forgiveness of sins.  We are told that Jesus died to forgive us of the awful things that we have done and that if we just believe in this, then we will no longer be under condemnation.  Little or nothing is said about righteousness - either the righteousness of Christ or the righteousness of the believer - unless the preacher also chooses to focus on the need for repentance (sadly out of vogue in many places today).  What results is an appeal that seems to offer (whether intentionally or unintentionally) a sort of "get-out-of-hell-free card" - a one-time removal of the stain of sin that, when coupled with some form of 'eternal security', makes the convert "good to go" for the rest of his or her life.

Many, many converts have responded to this kind of message only to later drift out of church never to return.  Now, I know that there are other factors beyond simply the way that the gospel is proclaimed that should probably come into a discussion of what went wrong with those particular converts, but I am also aware that we can't really over-stress the importance of what is communicated in a gospel appeal since that is what the convert is responding to.

So what is missing from the aforementioned gospel presentation?  What's missing is the new set of clothes.  We've removed the old dirty clothes (our sin), but we've not put on anything else.  We're left naked by this gospel appeal.

In Zechariah 3, we can watch the process of salvation unfold in a picturesque way in the life of the High Priest - Joshua.

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?" Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, "Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments." And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by.  (Zechariah 3:1-5)

Here we see the need for and then the process of salvation.  Joshua is filthy with sin.  Satan stands to accuse him of this iniquity.  By the grace of God, though, the filthy clothes are removed.  But Joshua is not left to stand before the King of the Universe with no clothes on!  He is given "pure vestments".  God does not just take away his unrighteousness.  If that was all that happened, then Joshua - or any of the rest of us - would still be infinitely lacking in God's eyes because God does not just demand the absence of sin, He demands the presence of righteousness.  Joshua cannot be righteous in himself, so God has these special garments of righteousness made for him.

The second part of this change of clothes is what is often neglected in most presentations of the gospel.  We don't just need forgiveness, we need righteousness in addition.  We need the whole package.  This garment of righteousness - this pure vestment - is also a part of Christ's work.  It is true that on the cross He suffered the penalty for my sin, removing the filthy garment from me, but He also lived a perfect life and was resurrected so that I could have His perfection and His resurrection.  Those are the pure vestments that I need to cover my nakedness.

So how is this kind of gospel presentation better?  It does not just proclaim a rescue from the horrors of hell, it proclaims the righteousness of Christ and the glory of being able to stand in His presence.  It changes the focus from something that may appeal to any old worldling without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (who wouldn't want to "get-out-of-hell-free"?) to something that will only appeal to those whom the Holy Spirit is bringing to life in Christ.  Only those who have truly been saved hunger and thirst for righteousness, so that's how we ought to make our appeal.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)

Oh, the Glory of the Substance!

Anyone who has read very much of the Old Testament usually has a pretty negative view of the Israelites.  "I can't believe they were so stupid!" is one thing you hear often.  After all, these people witnessed the most amazing displays of God's power that the world has ever seen and then turned their backs on Him and made their own gods out of logs and lumps of gold.  Such a thing blows our minds because we think that if we would have been there when, say, the Red Sea was parted, we would never again question God's presence or provision. The reality is, though, that we often do just that.  We will stand in awe of God's perfect orchestration of His universe one day, as we become the beneficiaries of His blessing brought about by the coalescing of ten different seemingly random coincidences that all add up to provide exactly what we need, and then question whether all that was really His doing the next day.  We will pray with our church family about the healing of a distant friend, watch that person get radically, miraculously healed to the stupification of all the doctors working on the case, and then get thrown into worry and despair when an ailment strikes someone closer to home.  So in a lot of ways, we're stupid and sinful just like them.

God got so angry with them, though.  As you read through the prophets, you find condemnation after condemnation - all coupled with some of the most hair-raising threats of judgment that you've ever heard.  And when I as a New Covenant believer consider all the ways that my heart suffers from the same sins of faithlessness and forgetfulness as those Old Covenant people, sometimes I wonder about what God would say about His anger towards me.

But several years ago, I stumbled upon one of the most beautiful promises of the New Covenant in Isaiah 54.  Verse 9 of that chapter says, "This is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, and will not rebuke you."  That statement is still almost unbelieveable to me as I type its words onto this page.  He won't be angry or even rebuke us anymore?  Other than just His bare statement that He won't do so, why is this possible now, when before He was so angry?

I found an answer to that question that I really like this morning.  In Isaiah chapter 1, God is once again expressing His anger toward the sinfulness of His people.  He asks them, "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?  I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats" (verse 11).  He goes on to describe His displeasure with all of the rituals and offerings that He had commanded His people to bring for His worship and for the covering of their sin.

And here was my groundbreaking thought (to me!): God can't say that about the sacrifice of Christ!  He can't say that He's had enough of His Son - that He no longer takes pleasure in the blood of His sacrifice!  When - through faith - we are plunged into Christ, all of God's wrath is swallowed up by the suffering of His Son, and the obedience of Christ is always pleasing to His Father!  Thus, when we stumble and doubt, the solution - Christ's sacrifice - never gets old!  It is never offered by our High Priest with unholy motives.  It is never presented in an unworthy manner.  There is never any admixture of sin or imperfection in what has been offered as pleasing to the Father.  We have been totally saved - even from His displeasure and rebuke!

The Old Covenant Law had but a shadow of the glorious substance that we now know (Hebrews 10:1).  So, knowing that we are covered by the perfect offering of the better covenant, let's not allow guilt for past sins stunt our growth in Christ.  Understand that if you are in Christ, you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Therefore, don't linger over disappointments and shame that have stained you in the past - Christ has fully satisfied God's expectations on your behalf.  Rather, forget what lies behind and press on toward what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13).

Aisles of the Blind

Once upon a time, Christians believed that salvation was of the Lord and that believers were called by God to live holy lives. The first belief was built on the Scriptures that claim that man is dead in his trespasses and sins and thus requires a divine act to call him back to life (Ephesians 2:1-5).  Astute disciples realized that if it were necessary for God to call someone to spiritual life from spiritual death, then He must be in control of the process, not the spiritually dead men.  Their hypotheses were confirmed by passages like John 6:44 and Romans 9:10-12.  And it was these ideas that led such believers to fully understand then that those whom God chose to save would certainly persevere in the faith, since it was God who was totally behind their salvation from start to finish (Philippians 1:6).

These Christians, being fully aware that salvation did not begin with man attempting to be obedient to the law, but rather with God calling dead men to Himself, then naturally understood God's righteous requirements to be a good and holy way to please the God who bought them with His blood.  And so they delighted in righteousness and hated the sin that lingered within them (Romans 7:7-25).

And then sometime later, enemies came into this happy fold and introduced destructive teachings, denying the sovereignty of God in salvation - placing the means for gaining access to eternal life in the power of man's decision.  Explanations of the gospel turned into cheap offers to escape hell, if only the hearer would "decide to accept Christ" or "invite Jesus into his heart".  To further the erosion of sacred doctrine, those who bought into this "easy believism" were also told that once they were saved, they were always saved, and that they should never again question their secure place in heaven.  If did not matter what they did after they "prayed the prayer", they were always and forever 'saved'.

This deadly seed took a couple of generations before its crop was ready to harvest.  But then, almost before anyone knew what was happening, churches began to wane.  Children and grandchildren of faithful patriarchs left church never to return.  Worse than this absense, though, was the teaching that lingered on in the parents hearts: that their children were still 'saved', even though they weren't living like it.  Now one evil became two.  One group believed that they had a right standing with God because of a decision that was made sometime in the past, even though there was no evidence of such salvation in their lives, and the other group felt as though there was nothing that they could offer the first group since they had already "accepted" the gospel.

The enemy wants us to believe these two cardinal false doctrines: that salvation is in our own hands by virtue of our decision and that we should never question our salvation.  Such teaching takes the focus of salvation off of Christ and then blinds the minds of the deceived to any danger.

The apostle Peter, however, has provided a wonderful corrective in 2 Peter 1:10, "Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities (as listed in verses 5-7) you will never fall."  In Peter's way of thinking (inspired by the Holy Spirit - verses 20-21), a believer's own pursuit of holiness is an indicator of whether or not God has truly chosen to save that person.  Think of how different that is to the false doctrine that says that our decision makes our salvation sure regardless of our behavior.  They are completely opposite ideas!

We need to return our thinking to the way our spiritual forefathers thought as they were guided by the God-centered Scriptures rather than the man-centered culture.  As the Lord said, we should "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (Jeremiah 6:16).

We will hopefully begin this week over at TrueBaptist.org to examine some of these historical Baptists who held firm to this "faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).  Be sure to bookmark the main site (http://truebaptist.org) and check it regularly or subscribe to the RSS.

Not Too Good

Here's a Bible verse that mischievous boys everywhere ought to learn: "Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.  Why should you destroy yourself?" (Ecclesiastes 7:16). At first blush, it would seem that a verse like that stands in direct contradiction with statements like Matthew 5:48: "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  How can we be commanded to be perfectly righteous and yet also encouraged not to be "overly" righteous?  Have we found a mistake in the Bible?  Should one of these statements not have been uttered?  Who was wrong, Solomon or Jesus?

Well - just as we ought to any time we encounter a seeming difficulty - we should search the context (the verses surrounding our verse) to see if there is a good reason for Solomon saying what he does.  And we don't have to look far beyond verse 16 of Ecclesiastes chapter 7 before we find our answer.  Verse 20 says, "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."

So, why should you not try to be "overly righteous"?  Because you're not righteous.  You're a sinner, and so am I.  And no one likes a 'holier that thou' goodie-goodie.  It's not that we don't like and respect righteousness.  It's that we don't like people who pretend that their poop doesn't stink - someone who will look down their nose at you as if their heart does not also struggle with wickedness.  It is a deceitful demeanor.  A person like this hides his or her own sin and then condemns others in order to make himself or herself feel more praiseworthy.

It is at this point that we encounter the difficult questions of how and just how much we ought to judge others.  "Judge not, lest ye be judged" is probably one of the most frequently quoted Bible verses in today's culture, and yet the Bible is also full of righteous commandments and encouragements to stand for the truth.  To further complicate the issue, the Bible also contains strong statements like 1 Corinthians 6:3: "Do you not know that we are to judge angels?  How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!"  And that comes after a lengthy exhortation to throw a sinful man out of the church!

So how can we be righteous, but not overly so?  I think that Jesus has provided the best answer in the same immediate context that contains His instruction to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) and His command not to judge (Matthew 7:1).  Just two verses after saying, "Judge not...", Jesus says, "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?"  And His solution?  Verse 5: "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."

I think that we can solve this difficulty of judging-but-not-judging and being righteous-but-not-overly-righteous by saying that we ought always to be honest and open about our own sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20) and the sin of others (Matthew 7:5, James 5:19-20).  You're not a hypocrite if you admit that you have a log in your eye and agree with your speck-eyed brother to help each other overcome your various sinful tendencies.  All Christians ought to constantly remember the depth of sin from which Christ plucked us and ought to be acutely aware of the lingering presence of sin in our lives.  We should never excuse sin, but just as Christ is able to "sympathize with us in our weakness" (Hebrews 4:15), we also ought to be able to sympathize with any sinner, because we share their nature.