In his address as guest speaker at a conference in Minneapolis, called Back to The Cross, John Piper said this when he talked about faith:
"You can't work for it, you can't grow up in a Christian home for it, you can't go to Church for it, you can't get baptised for it, you can't keep the Ten Commandments for it."
Now, in addition to being a noted pastor, John Piper is a vastly experienced international speaker, with a formidable reputation for biblical exposition in evangelical circles.
Given his orthodox position, if he were amongst us at this conference, he would feel at odds with much of what he heard here - unless God moved to change his disposition. Just prior to the words I have just quoted, for instance, Piper says that the gospel is "a free offer to everyone for faith alone." We know, though, because Paul the apostle was inspired by God to tell us so, that God's gift of faith is not bestowed upon all of us. It is also hardly surprising that John Piper holds the orthodox position on Hell and eternal torment for those who don't acknowledge Christ as their Saviour. This is why, on his theology, as Piper puts it:
"Instead of wrath and guilt, believers now have forgiveness and reconciliation with God."
The profound sadness, of course, is that Piper is unaware that this forgiveness has been conferred upon all of us; this reconciliation will be universal. Paul was inspired, by God, to bring us the evangel which contains these blessings. It is, in many ways, a tragedy that someone witnessing to the Word of God on such a large scale is, himself, unaware of these transcendent blessings. The tragedy will end though: whether in this life or beyond, Piper will, one day, know the truth.
The point of this study is to distinguish Paul's revelation from the rest of the Scriptures. Let's turn to the words of A.E. Knoch to clarify the matter. In his commentary on the Concordant Literal New Testament, A. E. Knoch precedes his discussion of Paul's epistles with a brief overview. He begins it with these words:
"Paul's epistles are for the present. All the rest of Scripture finds its interpretation and application either before or after the present secret administration. Paul alone gives the truth for the ecclesia which is the body of Christ. This is found nowhere outside of his writings. Israel and the nations occupy all other parts of divine revelation. What is true of them in other eras and eons must not be mixed with the present truth or it will lead to confusion and error. All Scripture is profitable, as a revelation of God's ways, but it must not be applied outside its proper place."
This talk concentrates on what Paul tells the ecclesia about faith. However, his teaching is intended to build up members of the body to deal with our fleshly existence, and to understand God's entire purpose. As such, his evangel is profound beyond measure. It is, therefore, impossible to consider faith in isolation from other aspects of Paul's teaching, such as God's sovereignty over his entire creation, and the great truth of universal reconciliation.
Now, although, as we have seen, God's Word contains many blessings of which Piper is unaware, his analysis does contain some wisdom. In telling us what faith does not consist of, it states, with some accuracy, what it is.
The faith of which we speak in this study is described by the writer of Hebrews. We should note that, contrary to quite a prevalent belief, the writer of Hebrews is not Paul. Chapter 11 of this book is devoted exclusively to exposition on the meaning of faith. At the outset of the chapter, the writer says this:
"Now faith is an assumption of what is being expected, a conviction concerning matters which are not being observed; for in this the elders were testified to. By faith we are apprehending the eons to adjust to a declaration of God, so that what is being observed has not come out of what is appearing."
Many today dispute the relevance of Paul's revelation. Even among those who would call themselves "bible-believing" saints, there are those who do not give Paul's ministry, and his epistles, any particular significance within the Scriptures. If we look towards the more liberal circles of the church today, there are some who would, in effect, write off Paul's message as a cultural relic, not to be taken much notice of in these more enlightened - and supposedly more sensible - times.
When engaged in any study of Scripture, we should never forget that, as Paul tells Timothy, "All Scripture is inspired by God". It follows from this that we should count all Scripture as relevant for our study and edification. It all unfolds God's plan and purpose. Nevertheless, our studies should always be guided by the fact that every portion of Scripture, whether book or verse, was inspired for a specific purpose. So we need to be clear that Paul's revelation is distinguished not only from the Old Testament, but also from the specific revelations of the other New Testament writers.
Correct division of the Word is the fundamental requirement here. It is implicit in the Concordant Version. Students of the CV are led to correctly divide because this translation shows the endeavour to be necessary. The principle was articulated several centuries ago when Miles Coverdale or John Wycliffe - opinion is divided on which of them it was - said these words:
"It shall greatly help ye to understand Scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth after."
The fact is, though, that over the centuries since that statement was made, the vast majority of believers have not grasped the necessity for correct division. It is tradition, and not God's Word, which has led Christendom to accept the Trinitarian fallacy and eternal damnation for the unbeliever.
Perhaps one of the causes most responsible for needless confusion, concerning God's Word surrounds the evangel of Paul and the epistle of James. The matter is frequently treated as a kind of biblical Gordian knot: a conundrum to be wrestled with, though it is no such thing. It has become another example of the tradition-based thinking which, in downgrading the importance of Paul's epistles, dishonours God.
Martin Luther, we should note, went to the other extreme with this controversy. He waved away the problem by declaring James's epistle to be 'an epistle of straw', and appears to have questioned whether it had a place in the canon of Scripture at all - an ironic and simplistic manoeuvre, given Luther's towering significance in ecclesiastical history.
In succeeding generations, many scholars, accepting that Luther's get-out is no answer, have credited James's epistle with significance equal and identical to Paul's teaching.
The consequence is the kind of mental gymnastics beloved of academe, but obstructive to those of us who seek to understand God's purpose.
The fact is, though, that no intellectual cart-wheeling is necessary to deal with this question. We simply need to look at what has been called "the address on the envelope". This elementary act is one of the tools we can call upon in rightly dividing, or correctly cutting, the Word. We noted earlier that the epistle to the Hebrews was not written by Paul. In fact, that letter carries no salutation, so we cannot say who wrote it. We can say that Paul did NOT do so though. The task with which God had charged him meant that it was imperative for him to make himself known to the ecclesias he was involved with, and all his epistles carry his name in salutation.
The salutation of James's epistle is this:
"James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion."
It is hardly credible, surely, given these words, that anyone could go on to interpret this letter's contents as intended for the same people and purpose as the epistles of Paul. Indeed, belief is not necessary for these distinctions to be clear. Yet tradition has seen to it that Christendom does not make these distinctions. The address on the envelope of this letter could hardly be more emphatic that it is intended for dispersed Jews to whom Christ had been revealed. As such, we should read and digest this epistle - not just intellectually but spiritually - but it is not a part of the evangel for today's ecclesia.
Now, as most students of the Scriptures are aware, the nub of the tension between the epistle of James, and the evangel of Paul, concerns faith and works. The tension is unnecessary and unhelpful, but if we can get beyond it, the issue of faith and works provides a clear testimony to the distinction between James and Paul, and what this should mean to believers.
It is, clearly, a fact that James did claim that works are as essential, in the equipage of a believer, as faith. In chapter 2 of his letter, at verse 14, James says this:
"What is the benefit, my brethren, if anyone should be saying he has faith, yet may have no works? That faith can not save him."
The point here, though, is that James was speaking, down to the last word, according to the specific revelation which God had given him. The contrast between the revelations of James and Paul has been termed "the relative and the absolute". James was inspired to write as he did, so that a particular function within God's purpose could be fulfilled. Paul, though, does nothing less than reveal, through divine inspiration, the entire purpose of God for us all. He completes God's word.
Before we finish with James's letter, I want to make one more point which underlines Paul's place in Scripture: James was the brother of Christ. We obviously need to qualify this fact though, and it's a qualification which matters. Jesus Christ was conceived by act of Holy Spirit; James was the son of his parents in the flesh. The point is, though, that this fraternal relationship between James and Christ gives us the ultimate testimony to some words which Paul addressed to the Corinthians. In his second letter to that ecclesia, at verse 15 of chapter 5, he says of Christ:
"And he died for the sake of all That those who are living should by no means still be living to themselves, but to the one dying and being roused for their sakes. So that we, from now on, are acquainted with no one according to flesh. Yet even if we have known Christ according to flesh, nevertheless now we know him so no longer."
We can see, then, that fleshly relationship was of no consequence. It had nothing to do with the logic of the significance of Paul's evangel. Such was the case then, and so it remains.
Now, as for Paul himself, there have been many diverse claims about his teachings and character, of a more or less absurd nature, by those hostile to God's word, or to religious belief in general. He has been portrayed as a bigot and an egotist. I have recently come across a book which depicts him as mentally deranged. It seems to suggest that Paul's persecution of believers, followed by his instantaneous conversion, are indicative of delusional behaviour.
It may be that a psychiatrist would have something to say about someone who was motivated to write a book like this. Distasteful as this kind of phenomenon is to us as believers, though, there will be some unbelievers for whom this sort of outrageous depiction makes sense. Even from a secular point of view, though, this author's argument downgrades the dreadful privations which Paul went through in pursuit of his mission. I mention this book merely to underline the scope of the ongoing attacks on the significance of Paul's evangel.
I now want to tighten our focus on faith, in Paul's evangel, by turning to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. It's clear that Paul was trying to upbuild an ecclesia which was beset with spiritual and moral crises of one sort or another. He needed to shepherd them back to focus on their faith, and what should follow from it. Look at the beginning of Chapter 3, where Paul writes:
"And I, brethren, could not speak to you as spiritual, but as to fleshly, as to minors in Christ. Milk I give you to drink, not solid food, for not as yet were you able. Nay, still, not even now are you able, for you are still fleshly. For where there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and walking according to man? For whenever anyone may be saying, 'I, indeed, am of Paul,' yet another, 'I, of Apollos,' will he not be fleshly?"
And in chapter 5 of the same epistle, at the first verse, Paul comes down to specifics in saying:
"Absolutely, it is heard that there is prostitution among you, and such prostitution (which is not even named among the nations), so that someone has his father's wife."
But these admonitions and upbraidings were not the full extent of Paul's instruction to the Corinthians. God inspired him to give this ecclesia teaching and wisdom which would take them to new depths of spiritual understanding. We are meant to derive the same benefit from it. Let's move to Paul's second letter to these believers. This passage includes the text we read earlier, when we referred to Christ's fraternal relationship with James. In chapter 5, at verse 15, we read:
"And He died for the sake of all that those who are living should by no means still be living to themselves, but to the One dying and being roused for their sakes. So that we, from now on, are acquainted with no one according to flesh. Yet even if we have known Christ according to flesh, nevertheless now we know Him so no longer. So that, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the primitive passed by. Lo! There has come new! Yet all is of God, Who conciliates us to Himself through Christ, and is giving us the dispensation of the conciliation, how that God was In Christ, conciliating the world to Himself, not reckoning their offences to them, and placing in us the word of the conciliation. For Christ, then, are we ambassadors, as of God entreating through us. We are beseeching for Christ's sake, "be conciliated to God!" For the One not knowing sin, He makes to be a sin offering for our sakes that we may be becoming God's righteousness in Him."
Now, this teaching does not by any means give us the full measure of the wisdom which Paul was divinely inspired to bring to us. We go to his other epistles to understand God's purpose for the ecclesia, and His ultimate purpose for us all. What we do have here, though, is fundamental teaching on what God did through His Son, in ordaining that He would die "for the sake of us all". The effect on members of the Corinthian ecclesia, one imagines, would be at once edifying and chastening. So it should be with us.
Let's now move this study to Paul's epistle to the Galatians. As we have seen, each of Paul's letters had a distinctive purpose when it was written, and as we read them today we should continue to imbibe their message. The Galatian ecclesia may not have fallen as far as the Corinthians in terms of simple moral degradation. However, Paul was faced with a group of believers who had strayed from God's Word. Their faith was not steadfast enough to anchor them with a spiritual commitment to the Scriptures.
In the first chapter of Galatians, at verse 6, Paul says this:
"I am marvelling that thus, swiftly, you are transferred from that which calls you in the grace of Christ, to a different evangel, which is not another, except it be that some who are disturbing you want also to distort the evangel of Christ. But if ever we also, or a messenger out of heaven, should be bringing an evangel to you beside that which we bring to you, let him be anathema! As we have declared before and at present I am saying again, if anyone is bringing you an evangel beside that which you accepted, let him be anathema! For, at present, am I persuading men or God? Or am I seeking to please men? If I still pleased men, I were not a slave of Christ. For I am making known to you, brethren, as to the evangel which is being brought by me, that it is not in accord with man. For neither did I accept it from a man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ."
Now, down the centuries since Paul brought us his evangel, how many more individual saints, and entire ecclesias, must have fallen prey to the same failures as the Galatians.
About a month ago, one of my brothers put a question to me which perhaps appears flippant, but it deserves to be taken seriously. In recent years he and I have discussed religion in general and Scripture in particular, with increasing frequency and at greater depth. He is an atheist, though if he is in a satirical mood, he does describe himself as "a liberal Anglican".
His question was to the effect that, when believers talk about being spoken to by God, or led by Him in regard to what they do in their lives, how do they actually know that it is God who is communicating with them? How do we know that we are not imagining this communication, or displacing our thoughts in some way? Or how can we be certain that we are not being 'led' by some other being, which could, of course, be a malevolent entity.
These are questions which I myself asked when I was an agnostic. Believers don't have the same dilemma, of course, but the question does lead naturally to a similar point. The passage we have just read from Galatians testifies to it.
Faith in God does not just mean sticking to a bunch of intellectually compelling ideas. If we have been called by God, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The engine of this faith must be exposure to the Word of God. We must study it prayerfully, intensely and constantly. If we do all this, it will follow that we stand by it as we go about our lives.
If we let our commitment slacken, we are all too liable to fall prey to the Galatian distraction. It is a well-travelled continuum: you move from an acceptance of the truth, to what seems to be true, to what you want to be true. You commit yourself to an evangel "beside that which you accepted". The point is underlined at the beginning of chapter 3 of this same letter, where Paul uses a series of rhetorical questions to deliver this blunt assessment of the faith of the Galatians:
"O foolish Galatians! Who bewitches you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was graphically crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you get the spirit by works of Law or by the hearing of faith? So foolish are you? Undertaking in spirit, are you now being completed in flesh? So much did you suffer feignedly? Since, surely, it also is feignedly! He, then, who is supplying you with the spirit, and operating works of power among you - did you get the spirit by works of law or by the hearing of faith, according as Abraham believes God, and it is reckoned to him for righteousness? Know, consequently, that those of faith, these are sons of Abraham. Now the Scripture, perceiving before that God is justifying the nations by faith, brings before an evangel to Abraham, that in you shall all the nations be blessed. So that those of faith are being blessed together with believing Abraham. For whoever are of works of law are under a curse, for it is written that, accursed is everyone who is not remaining in all things written in the scroll of the law to do them. Now that in law no-one is being justified with God is evident, for the just one by faith shall be living."
Some of you may have seen an interesting TV series which has been going out in recent weeks, featuring a group of Amish believers. The Amish, I believe, live in clusters, mainly in the USA. They aim to live out a life of faithful adherence to God's Word. Now, admittedly, it would be possible to criticise some aspects of the Amish lifestyle: for instance, they shun many of the trappings of modernity, such as information technology. I have reason to be glad that God's Word doesn't actually call upon us to do this. In fact, God has blessed me greatly through this medium, and I can testify that preparing a talk like this was immeasurably harder without a PC and the Internet!
There was much to admire about the Amish, though, and it all stemmed from a faith which was very simple, and very deep. The series brought a group of Amish teenagers over to the UK. Here, they spent time with their British counterparts, who were from various backgrounds, listening to the same music, going to their parties and attending school with them.
The Amish are educated at home, but at fourteen they begin full-time work; parties and secular music play no part in their lives.
The striking thing was that, for most of the Amish group, who were apparently not accompanied by parents or guardians, these fleshly attractions held no appeal. Many times, throughout these programmes, one or another of these teenagers would comment that they saw their life on earth as a vapour; they did not feel attached to it, or to material possessions, and they looked at this life as a preparation for what would follow it.
Watching these people, it was hard to imagine them being diverted from the Word. They were a powerful testimony to the "mild, quiet life" which Paul commends to Timothy.
These Amish teenagers were clearly profoundly aware of the awesome thing which we have in God's gift of faith to us. They understood the power, and meaning, of what God has done through his son. They 'feared' God, in the truly biblical sense of that term. This 'fear' is what I now want to reflect on.
A few weeks ago, I heard a recording of a talk from the Keswick Convention. The speaker was passionately arguing that the condition of modern society, and the decline both in church attendance and committed believers, were all results of the lack of a genuine fear of God. He said that this was true of society, but worse still, it was true of the church. If those who should be spreading the Word do not have a fear of God, the speaker asked, "How can their Gospel have any strength?"
Now, we do need to qualify this speaker's theology. Like John Piper, whose words we discussed at the outset of this study, this man thought in terms of leading all to Christ. We know that this is not God's will, though ultimately, of course, he will be "All in all". Nevertheless, he does have a point, and we shouldn't treat it lightly. The consequence of doing so could, in fact, lead to the situation in which the Galatian ecclesia found itself. There is no shortage of Scripture to edify us on this matter. Returning to Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, at verse 11 of chapter 5, he says this:
"For all of us must be manifested in front of the dais of Christ, that each should be required for that which he puts into practice through the body, whether good or bad. Being aware, then, of the fear of the Lord, we are persuading men, yet we are manifest to God".
And at the beginning of chapter 7 of the same letter, Paul writes:
"Having, then, these promises, beloved, we should be cleansing ourselves from every pollution of flesh and spirit, completing holiness in the fear of God."
Perhaps some of us need to take more notice of Paul's own testimony to the might of God's revelation to him. In chapter 3 of his letter to the Philippians, at verse 4, he puts the matter in these vivid terms:
"And am even I having confidence in flesh, also? If any other one is presuming to have confidence in flesh, I rather: in circumcision the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, in relation to law, a Pharisee, in relation to zeal, persecuting the ecclesia, in relation to the righteousness which is in law, becoming blameless. But things which were gain to me, these I have deemed a forfeit because of Christ. But, to be sure, I am also deeming all to be a forfeit because of the superiority of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, because of whom I forfeited all, and am deeming it to be refuse, that I should be gaining Christ, and may be found in Him, not having my righteousness, which is of law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is from God for faith: to know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, conforming to His death, if somehow I should be attaining to the resurrection that is out from among the dead."
And Paul immediately goes on to testify to what this faith demands from us. He says:
"Not that I already obtained, or am already perfected. Yet I am pursuing, if I may be grasping also that for which I was grasped also by Christ Jesus. Brethren, not as yet am I reckoning myself to have grasped, yet one thing - forgetting, indeed, those things which are behind, yet stretching out to those in front - toward the goal am I pursuing for the prize of God's calling above in Christ Jesus."
I shall now turn to Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Some of the quotations of Scripture I am going to use, here, lead naturally on from what we have just said about the fear of God.
Paul gives us more teaching on the wonderful place he has given us. We know that Paul's Ephesian epistle contains the culmination of his entire revelation, so it follows that there is fundamental teaching, here, on our place as believers in God's purpose.
At the very beginning of this letter, Paul says this:
"Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, to all the saints who are also believers in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who blesses us with every spiritual blessing among the celestials, in Christ, According as He chooses us in Him before the disruption of the world, We to be holy and flawless in His sight, In love designating us beforehand for the place of the Son for Him through Christ Jesus; In accord with the delight of His will, for the laud of the glory of His grace, which graces us in the beloved: In Whom we are having the deliverance through His blood, The forgiveness of offences in accord with the riches of His grace, which He lavishes on us; in all wisdom and prudence making known to us the secret of His will (in accord with His delight, which He purposed in Him) to have an administration of the compliment of the eras, to head up all in the Christ - both that in the heavens and that on the earth - in Him in Whom our lot was cast also, being designated beforehand according to the purpose of the one who is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will, That we should be for the laud of His glory, who are pre-expectant in the Christ - In Whom you also, on hearing the word of truth, the evangel of your salvation - in Whom on believing also, you are sealed with the holy spirit of promise (which is an earnest of our enjoyment of our allotment, to the deliverance of that which has been procured) for the laud of His glory!"
I shall just pick out one point from that passage. As we have seen, faith is a gift from God, and as this passage makes clear, we were chosen to receive it "before the disruption of the world". God did not confer the gift of faith upon me until I was thirty, but this was not because He was waiting for me to see sense, or to 'come up to the mark' which would prove me worthy of selection. He was not keeping a place for me in some kind of celestial roster, or batting order. God has a plan and purpose; His saints are part of it; He has always known who they would be, and in due time He reveals Himself to those He has chosen. God acts according to His will and purpose, and we have no part in that decision.
It is tempting to quote many more passages from Ephesians, to continue with the theme of this talk. I shall confine myself to one more text though. In chapter 2, at verse 8, Paul writes:
"For in grace, through faith, are you saved, and this is not out of you; It is God's approach present, not of works, lest anyone should be boasting. For His achievement are we, being created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God makes ready beforehand, that we should be walking in them".
This text certainly states that our salvation is not dependent on works. Beyond this, though, we learn that our walk with God goes with the gift of our faith. As we deepen our relationship with God, through prayer and study, the more keenly aware will we become that our walk with Him is the one He gives us.
If we imbibe this teaching, the character Paul commends to the Philippian ecclesia in chapter 2 of his letter to them, at verse 5, will be something we demonstrate ourselves. Paul says:
"For let this disposition be in you, which is in Christ Jesus also, Who, being inherently in the form of God, deems it not pillaging to be equal with God, nevertheless empties Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming to be in the likeness of humanity, and, being found in fashion as a human, He humbles himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross".
In closing, I shall just refer to one short sentence from all the instruction Paul gave to Timothy. In a very simple sense, we can see it as the biblical original of the quote on correct division which I referred to earlier in this talk. We need to accord Paul's statement a far deeper significance though. His words will live in us if we truly walk with God. At 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul writes:
"Endeavour to present yourself to God qualified, an unashamed worker, correctly cutting the word of truth".
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