Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: 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.”

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Spectator or participant?

Canadian politics just became much more interesting. Maxime Bernier has withdrawn from the Conservative Party, of which he almost became leader, to found a new political party. He is speaking up about issues that others want to avoid talking about and this has raised a storm of criticism. Perhaps he is starting a movement at just the opportune moment to bring the country back to the principles that unite us. Or perhaps his movement will fizzle out and just be a footnote in history. In either case the next few months promise to be interesting for political observers.

However, for those of us who are Christians, we must remember one thing: in politics we must remain spectators, not participants. Politics is a dirty business and no one who engages in politics, however pure his intentions, can avoid becoming soiled. Politics is he art of the compromise, but a compromise is seldom reached before a lot of grime and slime is slung about. Christians cannot win at such a game, unless they cease speaking and acting like Christians.

In the church we must be participants, not mere spectators. If we think the purpose of the church is to provide spiritual entertainment, we will be disappointed. But if we are looking for something to do that is meaningful and fulfilling, the church has a place for us. It may not be highly visible, but if that’s what we want we should ask ourselves if we understand what truly matters in life. There are people in the church who see things differently than we do. Listen to them, perhaps we have missed something. We should speak freely about the things that matter to us that they may have missed. We need to love them, and be lovable. Above all, follow the promoting of the Holy Spirit and trust that they are doing that too. When we are all led by the Holy Spirit the work we are doing will result in something far better than any one of us could have planned.

Finding home

The factory where I found work made engineered rubber parts for the automobile industry. I was started on the press line, where rows of hydraulic presses produced vast quantities of rubber parts. The moulds were maintained at tempertures above 300° F to cure the rubber. I started when the weather was already hot and humid and it was even hotter and more humid working over those moulds. It was a shock to the body of this prairie boy, but soon I was acclimatized.

While I was being trained I could not help but be aware of Howie. He was operating several presses and every once in a while parts would not release from the moulds as they should. There would be loud yells and banging sounds coming from Howie’s direction. I decided I would do well to keep my distance from him.

The second week I was given presses to run by myself. The first time I had parts stick to the underside of the top part of the mould and began trying awkwardly to get them down, Howie appeared beside me and took the bar from my hands. He got the parts down and then showed me once again how much mould release to spray on that part of the mould. Then he was back to his own work leaving me to meditate on how mistaken a first impression can be. Howie was a loudmouth, but turned out to be a good guy, easy to get alnog with.

Chris began making arrangements to move as soon as she knew I had work. It took me a couple more weeks to find a place to live but before the month was over we were together again.Chris packed everything that could be put in boxes, sold the rest and shipped the boxes by train. Then she and Michelle rode the train from Moose Jaw to Toronto where I picked them up.

It was the last Sunday in June when we drove into the St Marys churchyard as a family for the first time. As we got out of the car, a young lad, almost eight years old, walked up to us and said “Welcome to St Marys.” And we did feel welcomed by everybody.

In September Michelle started Grade One in the Mapleview Christian School. She enjoyed school and we felt assurance in knowing that her friends were the children of our friends.

At first we had invitations to the members’ homes every Sunday, but after several months that tapered off. One Sunday the brother whom I had first met asked me how things were going. I replied that life was working out well for us, but we weren’t getting invited out much anymore. He pondered that for a moment, then asked if we had invited anyone to our home. Bingo! Immediately I felt reproved and knew what we had to do. We started inviting others for meals, most often Sunday dinners, and that warmed and strengthened our fellowship with the congregation.

We had several visits with the ministers and deacons and were asked to tell our experiences to the congregation one Sunday evening. The congregation voted their acceptance that we had truly met the Lord, were born again and were living as Christians by the leading of the Holy Spirit. Sunday morning, February 11, 1979, we  were baptized by minister Robert Toews.

The day after our baptism, a vivid memory of a time long ago flashed into my mind. Just after being confirmed in the Anglican Church as an eleven year old boy I had knelt and gone through the questions in the little red book of self-examination before communion. Now God was telling me: “That was when I first called you to come to me. During all your wanderings I have continued to call you and now you are part of my family.”

And I was finally a Mennonite who wore a beard.

Trying to swim upstream

Duyring the winter of 1973-74 our pastor spent several weeks in California taking in a seminar on church growth. Upon his return to Moose Jaw, he called  a meeting at church to talk about what he had learned. He began the meeting by asking “What makes a church grow?”

One lady responded with what seemed to her the obvious answer: “The Holy Spirit.” This was the lady whose mother had recently been converted. Evidently this was not the answer the pastor had anticipated: “Well, yes, but, er, um.”

When he could get back to his train of thought, he expounded to us the principles of the church growth movement. To succeed at evangelizing a community you had to divide it into demographic groups with a natural affinity for each other, based on ethnicity, occupation or other criteria. Then you designed a congregation and a message thart would appeal to each of these homogeneous groups.

I agreed with the lady who thought the Holy Spirit was the key. I also thought that the gospel was supposed to bring people together, not separate them. But no, mass marketing advertisers had proved this approach worked and now it was time to use it to expand the market for the Christian faith.

The congregation began planning evangelistic meetings for spring. A committee was formed to plan and I was elected to it. Everybody was mobilized, the women got together weekly to discuss and pray for the outreach.

Meanwhile, there had been record snowfall in the winter and when spring came there was unprecedented flooding in low-lying parts of the city. As the waters began to abate we began to talk of what could be done to help. Mennonite Disaster Service is an inter-Mennonite organisation that could call out voluteers to come and help. At one of our evangelism planning meetings one member talked of how he had contacted city hall to offer help from MDS. He was told that someone from the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite at Linden, Alberta had already called city hall and said a group of men would be coming.

No one in our group had ever heard of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Except me. I got as far as explaining that the men wore beards when the pastor rushed to the phone, called city hall to get the number of the man from Linden and called him. “Everything is being taken care of, we have a lot of volunteers coming already. You don’t need to go to the trouble of coming all that way.”

The man on the other end decided they would come anyway. The last thing the pastor wanted before this great effort of evangelism was a group of bearded Mennonites being seen about the city. But he made the best of it and offered that they could bring sleeping bags and stay in the church basement.

Before any out of town help arrived we men went out one evening to remove furniture and other belongings from a house that had been flooded to the eaves. That was the end of any cleanup work for me. That night I had an allergic reaction to the mould inside that house that left me incapacitated for almost two weeks.

But I could man the phone at church. Insurance adjusters had to do their investigation before anything could be done to a house. They would inform city hall when a house was ready to be cleaned out, city hall would phone me with the address and when a group of volunteers was finished with one house they would call me for directions to the next one.

That put me in place to visit with the men from Linden when they came in from their day of work. A dozen men came for a week and went home for the weekend. Three others came the next week. Chris came in the evenings after work and our discussions helped us get a better idea of where we wanted to go.

This was when it dawned on me that the churches we had been attending were all happily flowing downstream toward the gulf of diluted Christianity, while we were trying to swim upstream to find the source of living water.

Flee temptation

Why do evangelical Christian leaders get ensnared in sex scandals? It’s because they so easily forget that they are still flesh and blood and that the tendencies of the flesh are contrary to their high spiritual ideals.

I wouldn’t call it hypocrisy; at least not deliberate hypocrisy. It is a tragedy when a man with high moral ideals come to believe that the power of the Holy Spirit has made him immune to the baser desires of his humanity.

We dare not forget that we never stop being sinners by nature. Yes, we cn have victory over those base desires. Yes, we can live without fear of being ensnared at any moment by some horrible sin. But we need to live every day with the reality of what we are made of and what we could do, but for the grace of God.

Some may boast of all the great works the Lord has done by them; others may abase themselves and say that they are nothing. Such voluntary, self-made humility is just as boastful as the first. It’s all pride, leading to the thought that I can do it by myself. We do need to acknowledge our failings. If we can be specific in admitting small failings, we have a better chance to avoid falling into the great temptations.

Most of all, we just need to walk with the Lord. When He is close beside us we will know when to go boldly forth into the unknown, and when to flee from temptation.

Spiritual drought

About this time every year farmers here on the dry Canadian prairies can be heard worrying about whether there will be enough moisture to produce a crop. This year we a are midway through the fourth month of winter with no end in sight according to the long range forecast. There is not a lot of snow on the ground and that causes stress in the farming community.

I suppose I would be stressed, too, if I was a farmer with the level of investment that is required by modern grain farming.

I will be 76 before the snow is gone and have seen that the rolling of the seasons plays out in a different fashion every year. I have seen springs with abundant moisture and ideal seeding conditions where the rains stopped in early summer. The grain grew tall and thick, but the kernels were few and shrivelled.

I have seen dry springs with barely enough moisture a few inches down to germinate the seeds. Yet rains came at the right time and there was an abundant crop. There have been years of drought and years of excessive moisture where some crops were flooded out. Even an overly long winter can be a boon to agriculture because it prevents the soil from drying out.

Anything is possible in Saskatchewan. Farmers have no control over moisture conditions. What about Christians? Many of us seem to go throught the same kind of cycles of scarcity and abundance of spiritual power. Some seem to live in a perpetual drought, trying to conserve the little bit of grace that they have.

Is that how Christian life is supposed to be? I think there are two possible problems when we are experiencing a spiritual drought.

One happens when Jesus fills our cup and we are so fearful of losing the precious spiritual water that we dare not share it with anyone else. And the water in our cup just evaporates. Jesus wants us to let that water flow, and as it flows out more will flow in.

The other possibility could be a misunderstanding of “never thirst again.” When the Holy Spirit comes into our heart, He becomes an inexhaustible source of living water and we never again need to seek desperately for that refreshment.

Yet it seems that we still need to feel a thirst, a longing for that refreshing water. It is too easy to slip into a pattern that seems Christian and spiritual, yet lacks the power that is readily available to us.

Elisha Hoffman describe that thirst like this:

Lord, I am fondly, earnestly longing,
Into thy holy likeness to grow;
Thirsting for more and deeper communion,
Yearning thy love more fully to know.

-from Open the wells of salvation by Elisha Hoffman.

Revival becomes possible when we have that kind of thirst. If we feel dry and parched, it is not that the Lord is withholding the showers from us. It just might be that we are not thirsty enough.

Books I didn’t like

Among the thousands of books that I’ve read in my lifetime there have been books that were useful and informative, books that conveyed truths that have inspired me, books that were merely interesting, books that were so uninteresting that I never finished reading them and books that were well written but quite deceptive. Here are four books from that last category that stand out in my mind.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: I was young and impressionalbe when I read this book. Still, the idea of a better world that would be built by pure unbridled selfishness didn’t impress me as being a world where I would want to live. I didn’t find John Galt a very sympathetic hero, either.

In His Steps by Charles Sheldon: I have read this book four times, trying to figure out how anybody could consider this a Christian book. What I found was people who read the Bible but never got any direction from it; people who prayed but never got any direction through answers to prayer; people who sang hymns but never got any direction from the words of the hymns. The only way they got any direction was to ask themselves  “What would Jesus do?” Then they found the answers within themselves.

Well, actually the answers came from Charles Sheldon. The whole sin problem in the world is the fault of privately owned business and the solution is for ordinary people to band together to counteract the nefarious influence of big business. The newspaper owner is the epitome of Sheldon’s solution when he plans to turn the newspaper into an employee owned cooperative.

Sheldon called himself a Christian socialist. Notice that socialist is the noun and Christian is an adjective, mere camouflage for the real message Sheldon wants to convey. He uses Christian words all the way through, but they are eviscerated of all meaning. It is very skilfully done, but this book is actually a primer on socialism.

A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch: Rauschenbusch follwed in Sheldon’s steps and coined the term “social gospel” in the early 1900’s. This book reveals the full scope of his thinking. There is no such thing as a sin against God. God appears to be a philosphical construction to provide a framework for ethical teaching, not a divine person who actually exists. Sin and redemption are not matters of personal concern, but involve all of society. The sins for which Jesus died are: religious bigotry; the combination of graft and political power; the corruption of justice; the mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt.

Rauschenbusch taught that there were two kinds of business organizations: the saved and the unsaved. Unsaved business are those that are privately owned, saved businesses are socially owned, such as cooperatives and goverment owned businesses.

One hundred years have passed since this book was published. I see the results all around me: churches, political parties, cooperatives and government owned businesses built on social gospel principles. I don’t see any evidence that they have succeeded in ushering in Rauschenbusch’s vision of the kingdom of God.

The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whittal Smith: This is another pseudo-Christian book which I have read several times. All I could find was pop psychology couched in Christian language. If people are unhappy and unfulfilled, they might want to ask if there is some sin hindering them, or are they not hearing and following the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is no mention of any of that in this book. It is do-it-yourself Christianity. I would recommend the Bible and genuine Christianity.

A living faith

I CAN NEITHER TEACH NOR LIVE BY THE FAITH OF OTHERS. I MUST LIVE BY MY OWN FAITH AS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD HAS TAUGHT ME THROUGH HIS WORD.
-MENNO SIMONS

THE TITLE ITSELF (MENNONITES) HAS NO SAVING POWER, IT’S VALUE LIES ONLY IN THE FACT THAT MENNO’S TEACHING IS ENTIRELY IN ACCORD WITH THE TEACHING OF JESUS AND THE APOSTLES.
-REUBEN KOEHN

*These were among a series of quotations posted yesterday on Operation Noh’s Ark. To see all the quotations click on the link at right under Blogroll. I first translated these two into French and posted them on my French blog – Témoin anabaptiste

Taking the long view

The proof of a living faith is seen when it is passed on intact from generation to generation. It is true to say that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is evidence of faith: brotherly love, peace of mind and peace in word and action, joy, thankfulness, contentment, humility. But when this is not passed on from one generation to the next, it would appear that something was missing.

Tradition is important. The ancient landmarks of the faith were placed for a reason. But if the next generation doesn’t understand why they were placed or just what they mean, they are apt to get their bearings from the things that seem most important in their day.

The ancient landmarks may have been interpreted in a way that met the needs of the older generation, but no longer meets the needs of the younger. Yet the basic principles remain unchanged. These principles must be continually taught, always in a way that can be understood and will meet the needs of upcoming generations. A rigid adherence to a form of words or practice will not do that.

The new birth is important. There must be a genuine repentance for the sins of the past life and evidence that a new life has begun. This would include love for everyone, new priorities in life, carefulness to avoid things that have led to the sins of the past, and a desire to make right whatever harm may have been done to others.

The danger is to mistake the experience for the change that is needed. To tell a dramatic, heart-touching experience is not proof the heart has really been changed.

Knowledge of the Bible is important. But it needs to be studied to establish a foundation for my life, not to prove a point with somebody else. it is a danger sign when one has a proof text handy for most any discussion, but can’t explain what that text means in the language of everyday life.

A living faith does not have to be loud, but it should not be silent. A living faith will be modest, but should never run from a challenge. A living faith will make a difference at church, at home, at school, at work, on vacation, and especially in those times when no one is looking.

It is best for children to grow up in a home where parents are deeply committed Christians. But it is not enough and it is not a guarantee that the children will catch their parents faith. It is far better to grow up among a united group of believers who live out their faith in all aspects of everyday life. The spiritual heritage is much more important than the family heritage. This is what allows the upcoming generation to catch the faith of their elders and then to pass it on to the next generation.

The old days were not better

Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this. – the words of Solomon from Ecclesiastes 7:10

When I was young many waterways were horribly polluted. I once stood on a footbridge in Toronto and watched the Don River flowing blood red beneath my feet.

When I was young we hardly ever saw First Nations people. They could not leave their reserves without permission from the Indian Agent.

When I was young there were deadly epidemics of diphtheria, tuberculosis and polio.

When I was young, babies were being born with missing limbs because of a drug their mothers had taken.

When I was young, the children of unwed mothers were committed to mental hospitals for life (during the Duplessis era in Québec).

Today the Don River, and most other rivers, runs clear and clean. Today there are no Indian Agents. Today those diseases I mentioned have been virtually eradicated. Today drug testing is more stringent, though not yet perfect.  Today no one can be kept in a mental hospital against his will, unless he has committed a crime. In many ways we are living in better times today.

As Christians, we bemoan the fact that so many people whose parents and grandparents were faithful church attenders have given up on church. We wonder what is wrong with them. Do we ever stop to ask if their parents and grandparents read the Bible and prayed? Yes, most homes had a Bible in grandpa’s day, but usually it sat on a shelf and gathered dust. Do we ask if there was any real evidence of a living faith in their parents and grandparents?

What is the remedy for a faded, worn-out, dysfunctional Christianity? Isn’t it to open our entire being to the Word of God and the Spirit of God? To love God with all our heart, soul and mind? To live in that love, to walk it and talk it? Not in a boastful or argumentative way, but in thankfulness and praise.

Wouldn’t that be a contagious faith? There is nothing hindering us from living such a faith today, except our doubt and timidity.

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