Thursday, May 31, 2018

The book of Romans: the power of grace

Romans is an illustration of how people have turned from God and God’s response and his offer of salvation through faith and grace. Pastor and author Max Lucado has a great book on the book of Romans. In the Grip of Grace (1996) begins with the Parable of the River which helps describes how people have turned from God. Briefly, the parable is about five brothers who disobey their father by getting too close to a powerful river. They are caught in the currents and swept away, fair from home. They began their long journey home and one by one, a brother stops the journey and turning away from the hope of seeing their father and home again. Leaving two, the oldest and youngest brothers, to continue the journey. I will use this book and the parable as I discuss different aspects of Romans.

The first brother is an illustration of an individual who turns from God and seeks his own pleasure in life. Hedonists are people who believe that the most important thing in life is pleasure. Their goal is to satisfy themselves, their passions with a disregard to God. They believe that no one is guilty of sin and what each person does is their own business. Paul describes this person as having no excuse for the things he does. In Romans 1:20, Paul says that men have no excuse “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what being made.” Therefore, nature itself is a testimony, evidence to the existence of God and his role as the Creator. But because they choose to ignore God and claim he doesn’t exist, Paul tells us that God gave them over to sinful desires (Romans 1:24). Hedonists believe that since they haven’t seen God, therefore there is no life beyond what we life, there’s no ultimate truth beyond this world and there’s no purpose in life beyond one’s own pleasure. He has no concern for the eternal and refuses to acknowledge a Creator (Lucado, 26). Hedonism has made its way into Christianity through the prosperity gospel. Prosperity Gospel is a belief among some Christians that financial blessings and physical well-being are always the will of God for them and that faith, positive speech and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. However, many Christians criticize this idea as contrary to Scripture as God never promised a wealthy life here on earth.

The second brother is an illustration of an individual who becomes the fault finding judgmentalist. This person compares himself to others as “Well, I’m not as bad as they are!” He is the finger pointer, the “record keeper” of others’ wrongs for God. This person is often bitter and proclaims himself the watchdog for God. Paul tells this “watchdog” that he has no authority to judge (Romans 2:1) and cannot escape God’s judgment based on others’ wrongdoings. Romans 2:3 says “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” The judgmentalist doesn’t realize that the wrath he is storing up against others will be used against himself at his own judgment (Romans 2:5). Paul tells us that God doesn’t show favoritism. Those who do evil will face trouble and distress and those who do good will receive glory, honor and peace (Romans 2:9-11). We do not need to keep tally of the wrongdoings of others, God already sees and already knows. Focus on your own wrongdoings as you alone will stand before God and your list of others’ transgressions will not help your defense. It is one thing to have an opinion about one’s actions but its entirely another thing to pass a verdict. Romans 2:1-2 is a prohibition of standing in judgement of other people and failing to condemn ourselves (Stott, 82). There are two reasons we are not in a position to judge: we aren’t good enough and we don’t know enough. 
Therefore, leave the judgment to God and focus on your own wrongdoings and rightness with God.

The third brother to leave the journey is an illustration of a legalist who believe that works will save him. This individual will write a list of accomplishments that he hopes will settle his debt with God. He acknowledges that he is bad, but he will make it up to God by doing `good works on earth. Paul tells us in Romans 4:5 that man doesn’t have to work to be saved, he only needs to trust in God who justifies him through his faith and credits him with righteousness. The legalists are the ones who usually become stuck up and think they are the only ones who will make it because he has done many works and looks down on others who haven’t. These people are the ones who criticizes other Christians who may not go to church every Sunday while they faithfully sit in the same pew every week. They go to every weekly Bible study and volunteer for every activity the church may organize. The problem is the motivation behind it. They are doing so in order to win brownie points with God rather than the heart behind the act to show God’s love to others. They may give their ten percent tithe every month and not feel the pinch and yet they will scuff at the individual who puts in a few dollars not realizing that it’s the last dollars that person has until payday. This reminds me of the story of the poor widow who gave all she had to the temple while others gave large amounts. Jesus proclaims that the woman had put in more than the wealthy did because she gave out of her poverty and others gave out of their wealth (Mark 12:41-44). The difference? The value of the gift isn’t in the amount but the spirit in which it was given. Therefore, when you give of your time or money, make sure you are doing so in the right spirit.

This leads us to the Grace-driven Christian. The brother who stayed on the journey, leaning on the strength of the older brother. This person actively seeks God, who acknowledges that he is bad but knows he is forgiven though his faith in Jesus Christ. You may ask what is grace? Simply, grace is unearned and undeserved favor from God. We receive grace through our faith (complete trust) in Jesus Christ. Through grace and faith, we can stand before God as not guilty as Jesus took our guilt upon himself on the cross. Romans 10:10 says “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Faith comes from our hearts and we are saved through grace as we confess our sins. We are made right with God through faith alone, not through obeying the law (Romans 3:28), not by the works we do or passing judgment on others. Grace gives us peace with God (Romans 5:1). Grace gives us a place with God and a share in his glory (Romans 5:2). We are saved dispute our struggles. Even after becoming a Christian, an individual still struggles with sin. Sin just doesn’t disappear from our world and our lives. However, God still claims us as His child and he still guides us through his word. “The same One who saved us first is there to save us still’ (Lucado, 148). This statement reminds me of the Avalon song Always Have, Always Will. In the song, the narrator reflects on his sinful nature as he struggles to follow Christ and follow his own selfish desires. “I always have, I always will. You saved me once you save me still.” The fact is we do not need to be perfect for God, as long as we have faith in Jesus and look to his Word for guidance, his grace and forgiveness will always be given to us.

In conclusion, as we go through life, we can sometimes find ourselves acting like the three brothers who left the journey. We become the hedonist who focuses on our own desires. We become the judgmentalist who criticizes others and ignores our own wrongs. We become the legalist who looks at our list of accomplishments and forget the heart and spirit of the service we can called to do. But we refocus on God and the gift he has given us in his son, we realize that we all have fallen short. We are not called to be perfect. We are simply called to love him, to trust in him and he will help us with our human struggles. Every other approach to God is a bartering system: If I do this…(works). If I feel this...(emotions). If I know this…(knowledge). Christianity has no negotiation. Every person is made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22-24). That’s it.

Lucado, Max (1996): In the Grip of Grace. Dallas, TX: Word Publishing
Stott, John (1994): Romans: God’s Good News for the World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press

Sunday, May 13, 2018

White Houses: the story of two women's deep friendship

White Houses by Amy Bloom is a fictionalized look into the friendship, and possible love affair, between Lorena Alice “Hick” Hickcock and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The story opens in April 1945, soon after President Roosevelt has passed away and Hick is waiting for the arrival of Eleanor, whom she hasn’t seen in years. The story then takes us back to when the two women first met. Hick was a reporter and Eleanor was on the getting ready to set on the road for the White House as Franklin makes his bid for the presidency. Told in a series of memories from her childhood through the Great Depression and her life with the Roosevelts, the book takes a deeper look into these historical icons.

White Houses takes the reader into the characters and shows them as more than the media and history has recorded them. Real people with real issues, concerns and struggles as the United States headed to the depths of the Great Depression and war. I usually love historical fiction and don’t usually mind when a book features real people, but I found this book dragged a bit. If the two women were indeed lovers, the author didn’t display much emotion between them. It felt flat and so matter of fact. I still enjoyed the story and recommend White Houses to readers who like fictionalized stories of historical figures.

White Houses
is available in hardcover and ebook

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A general overview of the different religious groups in the gospels

As I read through the gospels over the last few months, I decided that I would go back on do more research on the groups which are discussed during Jesus’s ministry. The Pharisees, teachers of the law and the Sadducees are the three main groups who opposed Jesus and sought to end his influence over the people of Israel. These groups would make up the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, composed of 70 members with the high priest serving as a leader. It is this council in which Jesus would have his trials before being handed over to Roman officials. The Sanhedrin also judge the apostles and members of the early church as they spread the message of Jesus.

First, the Pharisees are often the most widely known and most often mentioned in the gospels. They were a strict group of religious Jews who advocated minute obedience to Jewish law and traditions. The origin of the group is shrouded in some obscurity, but it is believed to have been organized out of the Maccabean Revolt (165 BCE). The Pharisees had three distinct characteristics. First, they had deep respect for the Law. Second, they were more a fraternity than a sect. To be a member, one must have a strict adherence to the Law, oral or written. Third, the Pharisees despised those they did not consider to be equals and were arrogant as they believe to be the only interpreter of God and his Word. The Pharisees saw the Jewish faith as a religion of works rather than heart as they believed God’s grace came through the Law. The Pharisees believed in predestination, the teaching of special divine providence. They stressed so much on the immortality of the soul that they often clashed with the Sadducees over this belief. They believed the reward for good works and wicked souls were under the earth. Only the souls of the virtuous would rise again. They also believed heavily in the existence of angels and spirits. They accepted the Old Testament scriptures and fostered the messianic hope which they gave a material and nationalistic twist. The picture painted in the New Testament and by teachers of the Bible, is almost entirely negative; however, not everything about the Pharisees was bad. Not all of them were self-righteous and hypocritical. Some tried to promote true piety. Some joined the Christian movement in the beginning. Some of the great men in the New Testament were Pharisees. Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) who met with Jesus to discuss his miraculous signs. He would later boldly defend Jesus as a member of the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51).

Second, teachers of the law were religious scholars and professional interpreters of the law who especially emphasized the traditions. They are often seen together with the Pharisees in the gospels. They were an important element of the Sanhedrin as they often served as judges. In the application of the Law, the oral teachings of these men were a greater authority than the written law itself. They were described as the most watchful and determined opponents of Jesus as they disagreed with association with tax collectors and other sinners (Mark 2:16, Luke 15:2). They agreed with Jesus on respect for the law and commitment to the obedience of the law. However, they disagreed with Jesus in respect as they denied his authority to interpret the law. They also rejected Jesus as the Messiah because he did not obey all their traditions. It is mentioned throughout the gospels on multiple occasions, they believed that Jesus forgiving sins was blasphemous (i.e. Matthew 9:3, Mark 2:16). But not all the teachers of the law were confrontational. In Matthew 8:19-20, a teacher of the law told Jesus he would follow him wherever he will go where Jesus teaches him the cost to follow him. Some teachers of the law even agreed with Jesus when he says that God is the God of the living when he was questioned about the resurrection (Luke 20:39).  

Lastly, the Sadducees were a wealthy, upper class Jewish priestly party, while many of the Sadducees were priests, not all priests were Sadducees. They often profited from business in the temple. The origin of this group is uncertain, but it is thought to be from the period of Jewish history between the restoration of the Jews to their own land (536 BCE) to the Christian era. They held to distinctive beliefs. First, they rejected the authority of the Bible beyond the five books of Moses and held only to the written law. They rejected all the traditions of the Pharisees. Second, they denied the existence of the resurrection of the body. They believed souls died with the body. Third, they denied the existence of angels and spirits according to Acts 23:8. Although the existence of angels and spirits was accepted in the Old Testament and especially in the five books of Moses, it is hard to understand why they would deny it. Scholars have thought of possible reasons as to general indifference to religion and their own rationalistic temper and the wild extravagances of the angelology and demonology of the Pharisees. Lastly, the Sadducees did not believe in predestination. There was no need for divine providence to order their lives and human beings were entirely masters of their own lives. Doing good or evil was a matter of free choice. With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 BC, the Sadducees seem to disappear from history.

In conclusion, these three groups display the both the good and bad of knowledge. To be so sure of themselves in what they know, they rejected anything which didn’t fit in their box of understanding including God himself. In today’s church, the term, Pharisee, is often used as an insult for someone who focuses too much on rules and regulations than on grace and mercy. They are a lesson to be mindful how one’s acts and sees themselves in relation to their knowledge. We may be well read in the Bible; however, we must not forget we are dealing with children of God and a God who is more powerful than we can imagine.