Monday, July 26, 2010

Q&A: divine calling

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Can you just decide to become a Christian, like deciding to go to this school or that, or take this job or not, or does it first take a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, and that work is what so pulls a person to fully trust and be reborn? I've heard quoted - no man can come to Christ unless the Holy Spirit has first come to him. Why is the man centered decision the emphasis? Is it biblical? --Brittany Pruitt

A: Brittany, your great question gets to the heart of conversion. How does a person enter into salvation and a relationship with God. For many years, I used the phrases "Accept Jesus into your heart" or "Come to Christ." To be fair, I don't think these phrases are heretical for they express the human experience of salvation. Twenty seven years ago, it seemed to me that I was making a choice to step from unbelief to belief. Moreover, the Bible is filled with commands in regards to salvation: Confess, believe, repent and choose. So, there is a human element to the transaction from death to life.

However, the Bible starts with God. And, in the work of life transformation, God moves first. In John 6:44, Jesus states "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." God speaks, people hear and believe. Similarly, in Acts 16:14, when Lydia heard the truth, "The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message."

This work of God is known as "effectual calling." That is, God moves in the heart of an individual--a heart otherwise stone-cold with sin--and begins the work of transformation. Paul writes that "Those whom [God] predestined He also called; and those whom He called he also justified" [Romans 8:30]. So, God's calling precedes the work of justification and is "effectual" [see John 6:33] in bringing people to faith.

For this reason, I choose to use the word "respond" when I talk about the Gospel today. I did not choose God; He chose me. And, any movement that I express toward God is a faith response to the voice of the Good Shepherd calling my name. While I may not completely understand it at the moment of salvation, the whole work of the whole Gospel is really the whole work of God. None of me; All of Him.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Q&A: God and goodness

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: I know God can use bad things for good and for His glory, but when you hear of child being horribly ill or being badly abused, it's hard to see how to trust in God's goodness or explain it to others. --Susan Sheldon

A: Susan, more than a few people have had a hard time trusting in God because of the terrible evil they see and experience in the world. When bad things happen--especially to "innocent" people--it's tough not to question the goodness of God, the power of God or the knowledge of God. If a child is abused, God must be unkind, unknowing or unable to prevent it. Perhaps all three.

To be sure, no one can give a completely comforting answer for the sad traumas and tragedies in our world. However, there are a few truths that we can put our hands on to give us a better perspective.

First, bad things are the result of the principle of evil in the world [see previous blog post "on suffering" below]. Terrible things happen because sin was unleashed in the world in the Garden of Eden. This sin affects and infects every aspect of life: the natural realm [tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, etc.], the biological realm [birth defects, premature death, Alzheimer's, etc.], the moral realm [lying, cheating, stealing, etc.], and the relational realm [divorce, abuse, anger, etc.]. God doesn't orchestrate tragedies in life. The pervasive principle of sin makes our world a very difficult place to live.

Second, the presence of sin is an expression of the goodness of God. I know, this sounds strange. But, once we read the first point above, we immediately wonder, "Why doesn't God rid of evil in the world?" and "Why did God ever allow evil in the first place?" Truth is, God could have limited the opportunity for sin, but to do so would have limited human freedom. In other words, for God to allow the free-est expression of love, He had to permit the possibility of un-love. To say it differently, only when my children have the possibility of not loving me can their love be proved genuine. If they only had the option of love [i.e, if option of sin and rebellion were removed], they would be nothing more than automatons--creatures without volition. This would not be loving and it would not be good. So, while it doesn't feel like it, the goodness of God is demonstrated in the original and ongoing freedom that He gives for people to love... or not.

However, the answer doesn't end here. God is able to redeem even the worst of tragedies to accomplish greater purposes. This is the hope of Romans 8:28. Though God permits sin to remain for a time [Be sure that God, for reasons we do not understand, does intervene and limit evil today so that the world isn't as evil as it could be!], He uses the terrible outcomes and weaves them together in a tapestry of His eternal purposes. For example, I know of a little boy, abandoned by his natural mother [his father died when he was young], who has met adoptive parents who, in the process of his adoption, have led him to Christ. God's ways are bigger [see Isaiah 55:8] and, in time, God's sovereignty will always bring beauty out of the ashes of pain.

I hope this helps.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Q&A: when do we get to heaven?

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Based on what I have read and what I think I understand to be correct, those that are saved but have died are not in Heaven now. They aren't whisked to Heaven after death. They will not go to Heaven till the second coming. There's always talk about Grandma being in Heaven watching but I don't understand it that way. --Debbra Ledbetter

A: This question is an interesting one because it challenges simple presuppositions that many of us have held for a lifetime with the facts of the Bible that sometimes suggest otherwise. Before I go further, let me assure the reader that, if Grandma is a Christian, she is safe at her death. The question is exactly where does Grandma go at the moment of her death?

Using the process mentioned two posts ago, I start my decision-making process by stating what I know for certain:

1. I know that to be absent from the body is to be in the presence of the Lord [2 Corinthians 5:8]. This is written from a distinctively Christian point of view.
2. Jesus assured on thief that "Today, you will be with me in paradise" [Luke 23:43].

3. Christian will not receive their final, glorified body until the Second Coming of Jesus in the future [1 Corinthians 15:50-58]. It is this renewed body that will enable us to enjoy and appreciate heaven and the presence of God unencumbered.

4. Human beings are a unity of body and soul [Genesis 2:7]. The soul does not live in a disembodied way from the tent of our physical self. Neither does the body live apart from the soul.

These four certainties enable me to set the boundaries of my theological conclusion. Thus, I believe that when a Christian dies, they enter into some kind of presence of God [this is not purgatory as Catholics teach from another point of view]. It is not a "holding place" for Paul believed that to depart this life would be "far better" [Philippians 1:23]. However, because Christ has not returned yet, our new bodies will not be reunited with our souls and, therefore, our heavenly experience will not be complete until then. These principles have led theologians to posit the idea of an "intermediate state"--in the presence of God, but not fully. So Grandma is on her way to her full inheritance...much better off than her life on earth, but not yet fully enjoying all of God's best which is yet to come.

[NOTE: Someone has suggested that, because heaven is outside of time, the moment a person dies is the return of Christ and, therefore. each person does receive a glorified body and enter fully into the presence of God. However, this is a bit too "fourth dimensional" for me.]

Friday, July 9, 2010

Q&A: saved or not?

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Say you accept Christ as your Savior and you take communion and pray a little, but you don't have a personal relationship with Christ. You didn't "die to self" so Christ (Holy Spirit) could take over and guide your path. You continue on with your life as if acceptance was a mere bump in the road of your life. The question is: Are you really saved from day one? Or is being saved a lifelong transformation? And if death occurs before the relationship is solid with Christ, then what? --Debbie Reddehase
A: Debbie, your important question deals with two issues: 1) Is salvation a point in time or a process? and 2) If a person doesn't demonstrate life change, are they saved? The two are related, but let's look at them in turn.
First, the Bible describes salvation as a point in time transformation and a process. The moment we profess faith in Christ, we are justified--that is, declared righteous before God. Romans 5:1 affirms, "since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." This is a past tense, completed act. Some people cannot remember exactly when they made a profession of faith. But, make no mistake about it, our salvation is secured at a specific, conscious moment in time where God changed our heart and we moved from death to life.
While this eternal, legal transaction of justification took place instantaneously, the ongoing process of sanctification takes a lifetime. Sanctification is the cooperative work of God and people to make them what they already are. One writer said, "sanctification is simply getting used to our justification." Throughout life, God uses a variety of things to produce the life transformation made possible through the singular work of justification.
Paul described sanctification this way in Philippians 2:12-13, "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." Notice that this verse doesn't tell us to work for our salvation but work out our salvation. Because God is "at work" in us, we can work with God to become the people He wants us to be. This is the normal Christian life.
This brings us to your second question: Can a person who doesn't experience life transformation truly be saved? In a very important passage [James 2:14-26], the Apostle states quite plainly that "faith without works is dead." In a very detailed study of this passage in seminary, I summarized James' words this way: "Authentic faith is proved by the works that it produces." The genuineness of our faith is found in the evidence of life-change. Jesus said we would be able to tell a tree by its fruit [Luke 6:43-44]. So, saved people produced salvation fruit. People who have been changed [justification] produce fruit of present life-change [sanctification].
This leaves us with a final question: What do we conclude about a person who attends church, goes to communion and even prays a little, but doesn't exhibit any substantive life change? The answer, I believe, is ultimately between that individual and God. But, the Scriptures give such a person reason to be concerned about their eternal destiny. Without the fruit of transformation, no one can be confident that they are rooted in Christ, the Tree of Life.