Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: assurance

A place to stand

Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. 2 Timothy 2:19

The foundation of God: In the beginning of time, the second day of Creation, God separated the dry land from the waters. The people He was about to create needed something solid to stand on, upon which to build their lives. Later He promised Israel that He would give them a land of their own. That was a picture of how God wanted to give His people a solid foundation, a place to stand. Israel squandered that heritage by disobedience, by seeking prosperity in other gods.

All the time, God was pointing people to the real heritage, the solid rock, that He had for them–Jesus Christ. That foundation was fully revealed in the New Testament. Jesus is our rock, the only thing in this world that is unchangeable, that cannot be taken from us.

The Lord knoweth them that are his: How do we know that the Lord knows us? Because He talks to us. He is always there in the life of His children to guide our lives. He speaks softly, gently, we can miss His voice if we’re not paying attention.

When Elijah was in the mountain, he didn’t pay much attention to the earthquake, the fire and the wind. He knew God did not speak like that. But then he heard a still small voice. French Bible translations say a soft gentle sound, or murmur. That makes me think that Elijah could not discern any words, but he knew that voice. Then he began to pay attention.

We don’t need to figure out what God is saying to us in this COVID crisis. This is not the voice of God. Yet perhaps this quiet time is our opportunity to listen for what God does want to say to us. Perhaps He wants to tell me that the thing that I had so much planned and hoped for is not really so important after all. But there are little things that I have neglected, things that have to do with my relationships with others, these things are important to God and He wants them to be important to me.

Depart from iniquity: When we hear what God is saying, and do what He asks us to do, we are departing from iniquity. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? 1 Peter 4:17

Even those of us who are Christians may find that we have been building our lives partly on the Lord Jesus Christ and partly on something else. Whatever that something else may have been, it will not stand in the judgment. Why not abandon it right now?

Some people have placed much hope on a future earthly reign of Jesus, but may have neglected to make sure of the foundation for building their life in the here and now. It will be the way we lived our lives in the here and now which counts in the day of judgment. Is our personal life solidly anchored to the rock? Are we building our family on that rock? Our congregations?

Many around us have no hope in Jesus, but have built their lives on foundations that appeared to be rock solid. Those foundations may feel shaky right now. We probably don’t need to point that out to them.

May we be compassionate in our conversations with those who are in distress. Telling them where they have gone wrong doesn’t give them hope. Tell them how trusting in Jesus gives us hope and they might grasp it and find a place to stand.

The LORD is my shepherd

shutterstock_1372830020

The words are so familiar that we give them little thought. Why don’t we pause a moment and do that? Who is this LORD who is mentioned 6,828 times in the Old Testament? Have you noticed that his name is always written in small caps? Other lords are mentioned in the Old Testament, but this LORD must be someone of special significance.

Well, we all know that LORD refers to God. Why didn’t David just write God then? Hold on to your hats, because the answer takes us on quite a journey.

You see, what David actually wrote was YHWH is my shepherd. The Hebrew alphabet was the first phonetic alphabet, but it consisted of only 21 characters, all of them consonants. A few of them did double duty to represent vowel sounds, but YHWH contains no indication of what vowels sounds to use in pronouncing it. YHWH is the name of God and that four letter combination is referred to as the tetragrammaton, a Greek word meaning four letters.

Apparently the Hebrew prophets, priests, kings and just ordinary people knew how to pronounce it until the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the Babylonian captivity. Then a teaching appeared that to pronounce the name of God was to take His name in vain. So when someone read the Old Testament Scriptures aloud and came to one of the 6,828 instances of the tetragrammaton, he would substitute some other word that was descriptive of God. The most common such word was Adonai, which means lord.

Some years later small diacritical marks were added to Hebrew, placed above the letters, to show the vowel sounds. When the Old Testament text was written with these vowel marks, the vowels of Adonai were added to the tetragrammeton, producing Yahowah, which later was translated into English as Jehovah.

Jehovah is an artificial word having no root or meaning in Hebrew. The consensus of Bible scholars is that the name of God should be spelled Yahweh. When Moses asked God to tell him His name, God’s answer was “I am.” That is the root and meaning of Yahweh.

French Bible translators have taken an approach that differs from their English counterparts. They translate all 6,828 instances of YHWH as “l’Éternel,” – the Eternal.

I believe that is what David was saying: The Eternal is my shepherd: the eternal, uncreated omnipotent, omniscient, creator is aware of me and all my needs and He is taking care of me and will take care of me forever.

We are significant in the eyes of Yahweh, He wants us to know Him personally and trust Him for all our needs. It is a wonderful thing to have the assurance that He is doing just that, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and there seems to be danger on every hand. If we trust Him and follow where He leads, He has us covered.

The voice of God

Early in my Christian life I obtained some literature that gave an intellectually logical explanation of the atonement. The theme was that Jesus had suffered punishment in hell equivalent to the eternal torment of every soul that would ever be saved. Therefore there was no way that a saved soul need ever fear hell, because his penalty had already been fully paid. On the other hand, there was no hope for those for whom Jesus had not borne the eternal punishment.

This is just the briefest of summaries of what I read, the subject was expounded at considerable length with selected Scriptures that seemed to support the view of the writers. I considered this explanation for some time. It was a watertight argument, intellectually precise with no loose ends that I could find. Yet in this mathematical precision I could find no means for a person to know in which camp he was; was he predestined to salvation or to damnation? Was it possible to know?

Finally, in the turmoil of these questions, I knelt to pray, asking God to give me an understanding of how the death of Jesus made it possible for God to forgive the sins of mankind. The response was immediate – it was silent but unmistakably from God: “You don’t need to understand.”

I was disappointed for a moment, then realized that the turmoil was gone – my mind was at rest.  I had been seeking an understanding of the mechanism of the atonement that would be intellectually satisfying and set my mind at rest. I realized now that it is not possible for that kind of understanding to bring rest and peace. Yet it only took five words from the voice of God to do that.

To know that God was aware of my turmoil, that He was waiting for my prayer, that He had answered in a way that addressed my real need, was of more value than any intellectual understanding could ever have been.

Approaches to the Bible

All those who call themselves Christians say that their faith is built solely on Jesus Christ the solid rock and that they depend on the Bible for spiritual truth and for instruction in living a life that is pleasing to their Saviour. But how is it really?

Some folks base their faith on a set of proof texts garnered from here and there in the Bible and are endeavouring to build a Christian life using this material. They may be very earnest in expounding on these texts, but often don’t know the context in which these verses are found. In reality, they did not discover these proof texts for themselves, but learned them from various books, preachers and teachers. They were probably convinced of a particular interpretation of Scripture, then given verses to back up a view they had already been persuaded to accept as truth. This is not Bible-based faith and the assurance derived from the certainty of knowing the proof texts is often a false assurance. Such a second-hand belief system does not equip people to counter the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Others begin with a desire to learn from the Bible, but as time goes on they begin to trust their imagination to interpret what the Bible is saying. This is often because they find a plain interpretation of the Bible too constraining. Perhaps they had a remarkable experience or two that was genuinely from the Lord, and begin to think that God has a special role for them in life. They search for confirmation of this in the Bible and begin to interpret all the events of their life in the light of what they imagine to be their special calling. By this time they are no longer searching the Bible to find God’s truth, but searching it to validate their remarkable new insights. They still claim to have a Bible-based faith, but are far from the heaven bound narrow way.

There are a few who hold up their thoughts, desires, imaginations and experiences to the light of the Bible and allow God to prove what is genuine and what is useless baggage. They will be blessed in reading the Bible. They will find direction for their lives, strength for the daily battles with the forces of evil, and assurance that God is leading. There is peace and rest when they have nothing to prove, but are willing to let God prove their inner thoughts and desires through His Word and the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Free will

We must believe in free will — we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Hmm. I wonder what he was getting at? Having nothing more to go on to discern a more complex meaning in Mr. Singer’s thought than this fragment, I will say that I agree.

When Moses told the people “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life;” and Joshua later said to the same people “ Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” we must assume that the people really were free to make the choices offered to them.

Yet many Christian denominations, probably most, teach that we do not have free will to choose our own destiny. They magnify the sovereignty of God to the point of saying that if humans can choose whether or not to answer God’s call then we are saying that God is less than almighty.

But if words mean anything, the Bible is offering us just such a choice, from Genesis to Revelation. Where then do people get the idea that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says?

Determinism, the belief that the gods, karma, fate, or whatever you want to call the ultimate power in the universe, have pre-determined every detail of one’s life, has always been part of Eastern religions. It entered Western thought through Zeno, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

It entered pseudo-Christian thought through Augustine, who laid the intellectual foundation for Roman Catholic policy. Augustine adapted Zeno’s thought, saying that God has predestined some people to be saved, and some to be damned. Since it is not given to mankind to know into which category they fall, the church has the right to compel all people within its territory to be members of the church and to turn the non-compliant over to the civil authorities. And since the church and the civil power were in complete unity, disobedience to the church was treason to the state and must be punished by death.

Since it could not be known who was predestined to salvation or damnation, then one could not discern that by the moral conduct of the person. In fact, those who led a pure and holy life were deemed to be deceived and the worst of heretics. This led to such aberrations in the Middle Ages as girls being led to the executioner because they refused the advances of the priests.

During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin refined the doctrine of Augustine; the essence of Calvin’s doctrine is often described by the TULIP formula:
Total depravity – the depravity of mankind prevents them from choosing to answer God’s call.
Unconditional election – The conduct of the elect has no part in determining their salvation.
Limited atonement – Christ only died for the elect, those predestined to be saved.
Irresistible grace – the grace of God is imparted to the elect, who have no power to resist it.
Perseverance of the saints – The elect can never lose their salvation.

This is the explicit doctrine of the Presbyterian, Reformed and most Baptist churches. Other churches believe much of what Calvin taught, but may be a bit nebulous about the origin of their beliefs.

The problem with believing Calvin’s doctrine is that church pews are occupied by people who believe that they have been born again through the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, but show little evidence of leading a Christian life. The old Westminster Confession got around this by saying that a born again person may take many years to develop an assurance of salvation. The modern teaching is that the new birth and conversion are quite different things, the new birth being instantaneous and conversion being a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The Bible makes no such distinction, the words are used interchangeably. There was a transition period for the disciples who walked with Jesus but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told Peter “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” It was only a few days later that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized. After that, the Apostle Paul says “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Some may be confused by Paul’s thoughts on predestination. Read the passages as a whole. He is saying that God had predestined that there should be no more division between Jews and Gentiles, but that all could be saved in the same way. He is not speaking of individuals being predestined to salvation. At the end of one long passage on predestination, he writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.”

Living in the presence of the Shepherd

There are well-meaning Christians who put much emphasis abiding by correct doctrine, even adding numerous rules of guidelines as rules of conduct. The intention is to construct a barrier around the people of God so that they would know not to stray far from the truth as given in the Word of God.

But where is the Shepherd in this scene? It often seems that He has been relegated to a supporting role, the barrier that surrounds the flock is considered greater protection than the Shepherd.

Well, fences work well for cattle. When a herd of cattle is turned out into a new pasture, they will follow the fence around until they are sure that there are no weak spots. Then they will settle down and not trouble the fence again. Oh sure, there will often be one fence jumper in a herd, but the rest will contentedly ignore him and feed on the pasture.

Sheep are not like that. If the flock sees that one sheep has found a weak spot in the fence, they will all follow. That is why sheep need a shepherd, and that is why the Bible depicts the people of God as a flock of sheep. If left to ourselves, we are all inclined to follow the wayward sheep.

In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. He calls His own sheep by name; they know His voice. They stay close to Him because they know He will lead them to good pasture and water, He will protect them from danger, He will care for the weak and injured.

Why then does the Bible spend so much time teaching doctrine? Why do we need doctrines if we are in the presence of the Shepherd? The doctrines are a big part of what enables us to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd from all the impostors out there. Jesus spoke of thieves, robbers and hirelings. They all call at first with pleasant, enticing voices. Some are trying to steal and destroy the sheep. Some are merely mercenaries who are acting as shepherds for personal benefit and do not care enough for the sheep to put themselves in the way of danger. “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”

Jesus says He is the door of the sheepfold. The sheepfold was a walled enclosure to protect the sheep at night during the colder months. The shepherd stood at the door to examine his sheep as they came in, to make sure that all his sheep made it safely into the fold and that no others tried to crowd in. Often he would sleep in the doorway at night to make sure no wild animals tried to get it.

The sheep knew and trusted their shepherd. They would not go out to pasture until the shepherd called them by name and went ahead to check for danger and to lead them to the best pasture.

Here is a God given picture of the ideal state of the children of God. To live constantly in the presence of the Good Shepherd is to live in peace and assurance that all is well. I am where the Shepherd wants me to be; I am doing what the Shepherd wants me to do.

By all means, let’s study the Word of God and learn the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. They all point us to the Shepherd and help us to know Him better. But may we never begin to think that our safety is simply in knowing and obeying the doctrines. It is in knowing and obeying the Shepherd who is revealed by the Word and the doctrines.

%d bloggers like this: