Friday, September 12, 2014

Shadows, Nails and the Fall Holy Days

Many of you who visit this blog are about to celebrate the Fall Holy Days. I hope you have an edifying season and safe travels, especially to the Feast of Tabernacles. I have fond memories of the Feast as a child in the Worldwide Church of God. What child - especially one who grew up in triple-tithing family - wouldn't love a week spending a tenth of the family's income on travel, restaurant food, mini golf and new toys?

As I grew older, the Feast was still a highlight, but mostly because it meant time with other teens. We'd gone through a few splits by then, and church friends were fewer and further between. I never missed a Feast, even in college. Then I married a man in "The Church." Two working adults with 10 percent of their income, forced to choose between destinations like Florida, Italy and Hawaii! What could be better? Of course, by then, our extended families were split among several different COG groups. We'd eagerly watch the Weather Channel to see which counterfeit group God would smite with a hurricane during the Feast. If poor Aunt Milly had just come to the Feast with us, in God's True Church, He would have protected her from the storm. Looking back, that bad fruit should have been a clue to us that something was wrong in the COGs. But hey, don't judge. You know you've done the same thing.

A few years later, we had our first child! We were now celebrating the Feast as a picture of the God family! This was what we had been planning for our whole lives! We were at the Feast with all of our brethren. Ok, with some of our brethren. Those ones meeting in a hall on the other side of town with a different COG group - well, they probably never really were true brethren, anyway. (This does happen. Last year half a dozen different groups met in and around Panama City Beach alone). Let's just pretend they're not there. And we're here with our family! Well, with whatever family members belong to our current splinter at this point in time. But anyway, we're here, living God's way! It's what He intended for all of mankind! This is the most meaningful time of our lives!

Except it wasn't.

I know, some of you have already decided that I never really "got it." Or that God was already removing my understanding because of my lack of faith. You've already made up your mind. You're free to think that way. I know I did when I was in your shoes. 

Many of you probably love the Holy Days, and, if so, I hope you enjoy them this year. There's nothing wrong with worshiping God any day, any time, any place. But if you've started to notice a hollowness while everyone around you is having the "best Feast ever," you're not alone. If you suspect something is missing, you're right.

During the Fall Holy Day season, I'd like to examine Paul's comparison of the festivals (among other things) to shadows of the coming Savior in Colossians 2. In studying this topic, I've found that the COGs play word games, violate the rules of logic and ignore even the records of Flavius Josephus to twist verses 16 and 17 to support their teachings about the festivals. In this series of posts, we'll turn to the original Greek text, examine the logical fallacies of COG arguments and explain the 600-year-old Jewish New Moon ritual that believers at Colossae were likely being pressured to keep. We'll also look at the symbolism the Jews attached to the Holy Days and show how that symbolism pointed to the coming Savior. By the end, I hope you will understand what I've come to see - that Colossians 2:16-17 mean the opposite of what the COGs claim.

Before we dissect the COGs' misguided interpretation of verses 16 and 17, we need to take a some time to understand the background of what was going on at Colossae. Taking individual verses or even words out of context give us a hazy picture at best, and at worst, distort our conclusions.

In this book, Paul refutes false teachings that some are trying to impose on the Colossian brethren. Those who promoted the heresy claim that faith in Christ wasn't sufficient for salvation - that physical actions also factored into it. Besides addressing the false doctrines, Paul uses this letter to demonstrate Christ's supremacy and the total sufficiency of His sacrifice.

So who were these heretics, and what did they teach? The COGs accurately portray them as embracing Gnostic ideas like ascetic restrictions and angel worship. Gnostic Christianity traces it official beginnings to around 100 AD, but it stands to reason that the movement didn't spontaneously appear on the scene. Gnosticism had been around since Plato's day, so it's likely that some Gnostic ideas were present when the book was written, sometime around 60 A.D.

However, the COGs totally overlook the Judaising elements of the heresy at Colossae, probably because they embrace many of the same teachings Paul discourages in this letter. Most of the Colossian brethren were probably gentiles - in verse 21, we are told they were "once alienated" from God. Sin alienates all mankind from God, but up until that point in history, God worked primarily with Israel, gentiles were not a part of that relationship. And the discussion in Colossians 2:11 hints that audience was uncircumcised, and therefore, probably gentile. The Colossians would have been easy prey for those who insisted elements of Judaism be carried forward into Christianity - like those whom we see pressuring gentiles to adopt practices from the Sinai Covenant in Acts and Galatians.

Scholars struggle to define these heretics and their teachings. Expositor's Bible Commentary says it's difficult to get a clear picture of what was being taught, since the Epistle doesn't list its tenets. But from many allusions to the heresy, we are able to sketch its leading features: ascetic denial of the body, emphasis on ritual circumcision, dietary laws, and the observance of Holy Days, and affirming the mediation of various supernatural powers in creation and salvation, as well as worshiping those powers. It seems to be a syncretist movement combining Judaism, a pagan forerunner of Gnosticism and elements of Christianity. 

"While at its heart it was a combination of Judaism and paganism, it wore the mask of Christianity. It did not deny Christ, but it did dethrone Him. It gave Christ a place, but not the supreme place. This Christian facade made the Colossian error all the more dangerous," Expositor's concludes. 

Some suspect those promoting the Colossian heresy were Essenes - a Jewish sect that originated in the second century BC and died out in the second century AD. The Essenes embraced the Sinai Covenant like the Pharisees and Sadducees, but also factored in strict ascetic practices and other Gnostic elements. Little was known about the Essenes until 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qmran. No one is sure whether the teachers at Colossae were Essenes, but it would explain the mix of Gnosticism and Hebrew teachings Paul addresses in Colossians. And could shed light on how Paul could label a religion that included elements of the Sinai Covenant as a "hollow and deceptive philosophy" based on "human traditions"

Paul starts picking at the Gnostic ideas early in the letter. In verse 16, he asserts that Jesus was supreme above all things on heaven and earth, visible and invisible - above the angels they claimed must mediate between man and God. In verse 22, Paul points out that Jesus reconciled humanity to himself through His physical body, countering the Gnostic teaching that flesh itself was inherently sinful. And I suspect that Paul was needling Gnostics who believed they had special, hidden knowledge when, in verse 26, he asserted that ALL the saints understand the great mystery hidden from the generations. (I'll refrain from making the easy "Mystery of the Ages" comment here. But I will mention the full body shivers I got during my last year in the COGs, listening to hundreds of prayers thanking God for the "special knowledge" He revealed to The Church, compared to almost none thanking Jesus for His suffering in our place on the cross).

However, in verse 11 of chapter 2, Paul starts addressing issues that would only matter to those who placed value in tenets of the Sinai Covenant. Paul reminds the brethren in verses 11-13 that they were circumcised in the spirit by placing their faith in Christ, a superior "circumcision" to the fleshly one they lacked. Hmmmm. Could circumcision of the flesh have been a "shadow" of that spiritual circumcision of the heart? Anyway, if the heretics were simply Gnostics, they wouldn't have cared one bit about circumcision. But we do have a record of those from a Jewish background pressuring gentile believers to be circumcised (Acts 15:1, Galatians 5:2-6). Remember, circumcision was never just about being circumcised, no matter what the COGs tell you. In ancient Israel, men who wanted to keep the Passover had to be circumcised (Exodus 12:43-49). What did the believers who had been Pharisees say about the gentiles in Acts 15:5? "It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses." Circumcision was the gateway to joining Israel and keeping the Sinai Covenant.

So about that Law of Moses... some Protestant commentaries assert Colossians 2:13-15 show that the Sinai Covenant was what Paul said was nailed to the cross. Other Protestant commentators agree with the COG view - that it was the record of our sins that was wiped out, citing Greek legal traditions from Paul's era.

Let's turn back to the original Greek text to see if we can make sense of this debate. The first word in question is "handwriting," or, in Greek, cheirographon. Spiros Zodhiates' Complete Word Study of the New Testament says this word can refer either to handwriting, to something handwritten or a manuscript - specifically a legal document or bond. The next word in question is "requirements," or in Greek, dogmasin, which means a law, civil decree or ordinance. Hmmmm. At this point, I can see both sides. It could be either a manuscript of ordinances - such as the Sinai Covenant - or a bill of debt. It is my understanding the tois between the two words requires the three words to be linked as a phrase, instead of just translating the two words individually. But I can see why some would consider the words separately and might see it as a note of debt.

Paul used three expressions to describe the document being discussed, according to Expositor's. It was, literally in the language, "written in ordinances," with regulations and legal demands. These claims were against us - they had a valid claim on us. And it stood opposed to us - likely because we could not meet the claims of the document, or because we had violated them. It's hard to imagine any legal document that would have any legitimate claims against humanity besides the Sinai Covenant, especially one that would somehow relate to Christ, but the language isn't explicit.

When words could go either way, we need to look at the context. Let's consider the two options of what Colossians 1 and 2 could mean, in context.

1. COG translation: "Christ is supreme over everything - creation, the heavens, the seen and the unseen. You have been joined to Him and you are complete in Him. He canceled the record of sins that was against us and nailed it to the cross... so don't let anyone judge you in how you do all these things. Which of course you are still legally required to do. Except for the New Moon part."

2. Protestant translation: "Christ is supreme over everything - creation, the heavens, the seen and the unseen. You have been joined to Him and you are complete in Him. He canceled the record of your sins (per verse 13) and canceled out the Sinai Covenant and nailed it to the cross... so don't let anyone judge you in these points of Sinai Covenant law, because they are no longer required of you.

As you can see, the COG explanation does not make much sense when you consider the context. The phrase about our sins being blotted out has no logical link to potential judgment for the way one eats, drinks, keeps Sabbaths, and so on. It would seem the more logical translation is that the Sinai Covenant really WAS fulfilled in Christ's death, and its tenets are no longer binding.

This becomes more clear when we look at the rest of the verse. The word used to say that the requirements are "against" us - kata - denotes opposition. But the word translated "contrary" - hupenantios - in the Greek personifies an opponent or adversary. Of course a bill of debt would be against us and could be viewed figuratively as an adversary. But consider some of the other passages written about the Sinai Covenant:

"Clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." 2 Corinthians 3:3-6. The letter of the law, written on tablets of stone, kills, but the Spirit of God brings life to our dead, stony hearts.

"But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory." 2 Corinthians 3:7-10. This passage clearly contrasts the Sinai Covenant with the New Covenant, calling the Sinai Covenant a ministry of death and condemnation.

"What purpose does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Galatians 3:19. The Sinai Covenant was added to help demonstrate transgressions until Jesus came to fulfill the promises made to Abraham - that in him all the nations of earth would be blessed (by providing the Savior).

"Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law." Galatians 3:21. The Sinai Covenant was not against the promises of God. But following it could not make man righteous before God. No law could do that.

(Tangent alert! Christians who accept this view of the Sinai Covenant are not necessarily antinomian. Sin and law of some nature clearly existed before Sinai - or else God would have had no reason to banish Cain or flood the earth. And passages late in the New Testament still talk about sin and law. Many believe God expected man to keep the Noachide laws before Sinai - which is not so crazy, considering they largely mirror what the Apostles told the gentiles to do following the Acts 15 conference. Add to that the commands Christ and His Apostles gave to His followers - and there is still quite a bit required of Christian believers. Just not the Sinai Covenant. Ok, tangent over.)

"What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death." Romans 7:7-10. The Sinai Covenant was not sinful, it demonstrated what was sin to those who were a party to the covenant. Once Paul was able to understand the what was considered sinful under the Covenant, he was aware of the dark nature of his desires. Complete obedience to the Sinai Covenant would bring life, but since that was not possible, it brought death.

"Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor." Galatians 3:24-25. The Sinai Covenant taught us that it was impossible to be justified by keeping it. It showed us our need for a Savior. And now that the Savior has come, we no longer need that teacher.

In Colossians 2:14, Paul could have stopped at saying the "cheirographon tois dogmasin" was against us - that what the COGs insist was simply our bill of indebtedness was against us until Christ blotted it out. But he went further. He also called it an adversary, an opponent. The scriptures I've listed demonstrate how the Sinai Covenant, as holy as it was, could not make man holy. It couldn't change his heart. It only demonstrated his sinfulness, how short he fell, and how his only hope was the promised Savior. It led him to Jesus by accusing him of wrongdoing and failure - rightfully so - every day of his life. Is this not the role of an adversary?

The items listed in Colossians 2:16 - the food, the drink, the festivals, the New Moons and Sabbaths - they were all a part of the tutor - the Sinai Covenant - that was intended to lead Israel to Christ. They didn't lead Israel to try harder - we all know that. The Sinai Covenant was given, I believe, to demonstrate that even a nation chosen by God, rescued by God, sustained by God, planted in a blessed land by God and told exactly how to worship by God couldn't obey. They couldn't achieve true righteousness. Heck, they barely made it out of Egypt before they started complaining. If they couldn't do it, with all those advantages, what chance do we have? Our only hope is to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God. And once we are given the gift of salvation, the gift of Christ's righteousness imputed to us, those shadows have done their job.

The Sinai Covenant was an administrative covenant of detailed written laws given for a time, to restrain the Israelites' sin and to be a custodian to point people to Christ, according to Galatians chapter 3, verses 19 and 24 (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 521). The sacrificial system outlined in the covenant did not really take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4), it simply foreshadowed Christ's sacrifice for sin.

"Nevertheless, the Mosiac Covenant itself, with all its detailed laws, could not save people. It is not that the laws were wrong in themselves, for they were given by a Holy God, but they had no power to give people new life, and the people were not able to obey them perfectly," Grudem says, alluding to Galatians 3:21.  

I'm aware that I haven't conclusively proven that the Sinai Covenant was nailed to the Cross, or that we can cast off its tenets. You can read more on that topic here.  My intention is to encourage you to do is look at Colossians 2 in context. When we ignore the context, and just look at words or scriptures in isolation, you can make them say pretty much whatever you want. Which is why you often have upwards of 30 individual verses, almost none adjacent, in a 45-minutes COG sermon. It takes intellectual honesty to look at a passage of scripture in context. In my next post, we'll look at a few words and verses from Colossians 2 that the COGs twist in isolation to support their misinterpretation of this passage.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Criminal, a Cross and a Comma

The Bible is full of guidance, commands and instructions. And its stated, overarching goal is to lead man to inherit eternal life. So it's easy to come to the mistaken conclusion that our salvation is dependent upon on how well we follow those commands and instructions. In reality, our salvation has nothing to do with how we follow these commands and instructions - on what some call our works.

This post is the last in a series on justification and imputed righteousness - two concepts that are key to understanding the biblical plan for for human redemption. The Churches of God reject these doctrines, instead teaching that justification before God is something that we must maintain by attaining righteousness through obedience, repentance and overcoming sin.  These teachings contradict multiple scriptures that show our salvation comes by grace through faith in the shed of blood of Jesus, not our spiritual batting average. 

So far in this series, we have learned that justification refers to our legal standing before an authority (please see Just What Do You Mean... JUSTIFIED?). It is not the state of our character, nor is it dependent on such. We have seen the Bible teaches that God justifies us, or declares us righteous, when we place our faith in Jesus alone for salvation (please see Imputed Righteousness - God's Exit Strategy). Christ didn't simply make a down payment on our salvation, leaving us to pay off the balance. We do not maintain our justification by keeping current on our "loan" of grace through repentance and changed behavior. Once we are justified, the Holy Spirit begins to sanctify us - to work in us to change our hearts and our behavior over time, with our cooperation. But that change is a fruit of our justification - evidence that it has taken place. It is not the thing that keeps us right with God. When we place our faith in Him, Jesus' righteousness is credited to us - we are clothed in his righteousness, as Jeremiah 61:10 foreshadows.

The Bible brings these concepts to life in Luke 23:32-43, in which God justifies a thief who demonstrated his faith in Jesus while being crucified alongside Him. You're probably familiar with the story. The COGs usually turn to this account to "disprove" the teaching that Christians go to heaven immediately after death. They bicker about comma placement and Hebrew idioms, missing the larger point of the passage. 

We'll join the story in verse 39, where one of the criminals being crucified blasphemed Jesus. In the verses that follow, the other criminal rebukes the first for mocking Christ. The thief then asks Jesus to remember him when He enters His Kingdom. In verse 43, Jesus responds that the criminal will be with Him in Paradise.

"And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."

We can debate comma  placement all day - whether Jesus emphasized that he was speaking today about a time in the future or whether the thief would be with Him today, immediately after they died. We can debate where Jesus went after He died, or argue that there's no way the criminal could have been with Him in the hours that followed. But we can't dispute the fact that Jesus told an admitted criminal who demonstrated his faith that he "made it" - that he would be with Him in His Kingdom.

Notice what Jesus didn't say:

He didn't tell the criminal not to worry, that he and the rest of mankind would get a second chance in the Kingdom. The Bible teaches that man dies once, and then he is judged (Hebrews 9:27). There are no do-overs.

Jesus didn't tell the criminal that He could tell he had a good attitude and would be very teachable when he was resurrected to a second physical life, that He was certain the man would live an obedient life and qualify for eternal life the second time around. However, that's how UCG explains His statement:
"In other words, in the resurrection this criminal would have an opportunity to understand the truth of God. Christ could perceive that he would understand the truth and eventually would be in the Kingdom of God." (The Thief on the Cross - Beyond Today episode from July 17, 2012)

Notice this claim flatly contradicts decades of Worldwide Church of God teaching, which plainly stated the way God perceives that He can trust us with eternal life is through our "obedience" (in other words, Old Covenant law-keeping). Genesis 22: 12 was read with regularity to demonstrate that God had to test a person for "obedience" before He could know their heart. "Obedience" had to be demonstrated before baptism could occur. This "obedience" was the entire point of the second resurrection. The people who were kept from "obedience" in this life would be given a chance to "obey" in the next life, under the tutelage of the resurrected members of the WCG. This law-keeping is the very method God employs know our hearts. So, how then did Jesus know the thief's heart without any law-keeping whatsoever? According to the teachings of Herbert Armstrong, He could not! Was Armstrong wrong then?

Continuing on -
Jesus didn't tell the thief that he couldn't attain eternal life without becoming "converted" over the course of a lifetime of obedience. No, that's what COGWA tells us.
"Even though the thief on the cross admitted to receiving the due reward for his deeds, he did not have an opportunity to live a life of obedience to God, which is all part of the conversion process. The thief merely made a positive comment about Jesus Christ; and in return, Christ spoke comforting words to him about his future in the paradise of the Kingdom of God." (John Foster, Thief on the Cross: What Happened to Him.)

So COGWA would have us believe that the thief and Jesus were simply exchanging pleasantries? Reciprocating positive comments? Comforting words? Are we talking about the inspired Word of God or a conversation in the grocery checkout line? I thought all scripture was profitable for teaching and reproof. That we were to live by every word of God. Since when did Jesus waste words just to give someone the warm fuzzies?

At least UCG acknowledges the gravity of the conversation between the men. UCG notes the that the phrase "Assuredly I say to you today" was a common Hebrew idiom consistently used for very solemn emphasis. (From the booklet Heaven and Hell: What does the Bible Really Teach?). But then UCG returns to standard COG comma drama about biased translators distorting the figure of speech through misplaced punctuation. Whether or not that's true, they totally gloss over the impact of what Jesus told this criminal. 

The thief had no opportunity to turn from his life of stealing. We don't know whether he ever kept the Sabbath. He never had the chance to be baptized. He literally couldn't lift a finger. So what exactly did he do, and why does it matter to us?

It seems that the criminal did all he needed to do in order to receive the gift of salvation. Otherwise, why would Jesus have assured the thief that he would be with Him in Paradise? Remember, I'm not debating the timing of when that would happen. I'm just pointing out that He assured the thief he would be there. We know he admitted to Jesus that he was a sinner, in verse 41. We don't know for sure that he repented of his sins, but the context shows he acknowledged his wrongdoing and didn't dispute his punishment. And it certainly seems He had faith in Jesus. Why else would he ask Jesus to remember Him while everyone else around him was hurling insults instead? So according to scriptures like Acts 16:30-31 and Romans 10:9, he did what was necessary to qualify for eternal life.

We do not get our right standing before God by "being converted" through a lifetime of obedience, as COGWA would have us believe. Man "is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" according to Galatians 2:16. Likewise, Romans 3:28 concludes "that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law."

We do not maintain our right standing with God through our behavior, as UCG inaccurately explains. That is justification by works, which contradicts several passages of scripture. We work for a paycheck, not a gift, as Romans 4:4 tells us. You don't thank your boss for the gift of a paycheck after a rough week on the job. You check your stub to make sure you got every penny you deserved. In the workplace, this is fine, but when it comes to salvation, we should be reluctant to embrace a ledger mentality. All we earn in this life is death - eternal life is a gift, according to Romans 6:23. Besides, Jesus told us what our work is - to "believe in Him whom He has sent." (John 6:28-29).

Being justified doesn't mean we are "lined up" over and over again after each sin, like so much text, as LCG explains. It means that God has declared us innocent of the death sentence we deserve for our sins. Through Jesus' obedience, we are made righteous (Romans 5:19). Then God begins to transform us from the inside into the image of His Son.

During this process, when we sin, we come to God in repentance to restore our right relationship with Him. We may suffer consequences for our sin - Scripture tells us even our prayers may be hindered. Being out of step with God is a dangerous place to be. But believers do not fall in and out of His grace each time we fall short. The insecurity and spiritual whiplash this mentality creates is never what God intended for His children. It is a scare tactic that a controlling religious system uses to keep its followers in line. Waving the keys to the Lake of Fire at someone living a flagrantly sinful lifestyle is one thing, although it might not the best approach to restore a wayward brother. But those who threaten faithful believers with eternal damnation because of missteps, questions or honest scriptural disagreement do not speak for the true Shepherd. Other scriptures tell us about that kind of shepherd.

Those who criticize Christianity for using this passage to teach "cheap grace" and "deathbed repentance" twist scripture. Actually, it's more likely that they've heard scriptures being twisted for decades and are just repeating what they've been taught. I doubt they fully understand the doctrines they malign. They believe that, at the end of their lives, God will look the other way when it comes to their remaining sins, since they tried so hard. They didn't score a 100, but they got close enough, so He'll bump them over the finish line. That's not the way it works. Our Holy God cannot accept sin. Sinners cannot be in His presence. He would not have accepted Jesus' sacrifice if He had sinned even once. If Jesus set the example for how we are to reach eternal life, as many COG splinters claim, why would God expect any less of us? We will never attain that level of righteousness, not if we lived 500 years. Having our sins covered in His righteousness is our only hope.  I suspect those who reject justification and imputed righteousness in favor of ongoing justification don't realize they have bitten off far more than they can chew. I know I never did.

There is nothing cheap about the grace God has shown us. It cost the blood of our Savior. We cheapen that sacrifice when we enter the filthy rags of our own "righteousness" into the equation for salvation. We cannot add to Jesus. When the magnitude of our own unworthiness and Christ's sacrifice pierces our hearts, God has us where He needs us to be. It's only then that He can justify us, account Jesus' righteousness to us and begin the work of sanctification in us. We will never get there by embracing a checklist mentality or by trying to maintain our justification. Turn away from false doctrines like "ongoing justification." Reject any faith in your own goodness and embrace the gift of eternal life that is freely offered by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The man to whom God credits no sin is blessed, Romans 4:8 tells us. Imputed righteousness truly is one of the biggest blessings we can ever receive. 

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Suicide in the Philadelphia Church of God

We at ABD were saddened this week to hear about a Philadelphia Church of God member who is reported to have taken her own life in response to PCG's "no-contact policy." It is also reported that PCG is downplaying the tragedy by claiming the woman died of heart failure - an unlikely story for a 30-year-old. I suppose it's possible the method she used eventually caused heart failure. Regardless, we pray for her husband, her family and all affected by this unnecessary tragedy.

Life in the Churches of God is often a lonely existence, but PCG takes it to a whole new level. PCG twists scriptures discouraging fellowship with people who live sinful lifestyles (like fornication, drunkenness and extortion) to force members to cut off contact with family members who are not members of the group. 

In his Pastor General's report on the edict, (Dec. 10, 2005, Vol. 2, No. 39), Gerald Flurry cites 2 Thessalonians 3:6, which states that "We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us."

You may recall back in 2010 with parents abandoned their teenage daughter when she expressed a desire to leave the Philadelphia Church of God. You can read our article "PCG Parents Abandon Teen Daughter" if you need a refresher on that.

Gerald Flurry then has this to say regarding contact with the "Laodiceans" - presumably friends and family members who are not members of his particular splinter.
"Certainly all the Laodicean groups are walking disorderly. They're not walking after the traditions given to us by God's government through Mr. Armstrong. We have to look upon people that are in the Laodicean churches as being disfellowshipped. Revelation 11:1-2 says they've been cast out, they have been put out of the Church of God. We must not keep company or fellowship with them by going to restaurants and things like that."
Revelation 11 barely makes sense in this context, but 2 Thessalonians 3 does appear to speak to the topic. Reading the context of the rest of the chapter, however, reveals that Paul was telling the Thessalonians not to support idle brethren who refused to work and instead spent their days in gossip and disorderly conduct. It's hardly a command to cut off conduct with relatives whose primary "sin" is not to recognize Flurry as "That Apostle" or keep his traditions. As usual, a COG group uses a single scripture as a proof-text used to promote fear, control and isolation.

One would expect a group that elevates Exodus 20:8-11 above most of the New Testament would treat Exodus 20:12 with equal gravity. However, instead of encouraging her to honor her parents, PCG ordered this young woman to cut off contact with them. Those familiar with the situation report that her depression spiraled out of control, and she committed suicide.

It's unlikely that Jesus Christ expected His followers to cut off contact with unbelieving family members. In Mark 7:11-12, he condemned the Pharisees for shirking their familial duty to take care of their aging parents by declaring their material possessions as "corban" - a gift to God. And if He had cut off contact with his half-brother James (who was not one of Jesus' original followers), we would probably only have 26 books in the New Testament. While Jesus taught those who lose relatives for the gospel's sake will be blessed, the context indicates He was encouraging those suffering in those damaged relationships - not commanding them to sever all ties.

We personally know parents of PCG members who have only learned of children's serious injuries through local newspaper reports, thanks to PCG's "no contact" policies. We have seen elder care fumbled when PCG members refuse to be in their aging parent's house at the same time as their "Laodicean" siblings. We have witnessed the hurt of new parents whose PCG family refuses to see a new grandchild. And now the blood of this young woman is on their hands. May God use this tragedy to His glory - to awaken her husband, friends and brethren to the toxic, controlling environment in the PCG and lead them out before it happens again.

And for those of you shaking your heads from other COG groups, don't think it couldn't happen to you. Your apple fell from the same tree. Your friends and family might currently attend a more stable splinter, but that doesn't mean they always will. And it happens on a smaller scale each time you split and splinter, or each time one of your friends leaves "The Church." We have all suffered the sting of unofficial COG policies limiting contact - or made someone else suffer - at one time or another. 

Jesus died so that you could have an abundant life, not cower alone in the shadows. Make today the day you leave behind the fear, anxiety and isolation. Embrace the love, joy and peace your Creator wants for you, that He died for you to have.   

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11

Friday, July 25, 2014

Imputed Righteousness - God's Exit Strategy

In my last post, we examined the Biblical term "justification." In short, justification refers to one's legal standing before an authority, not the state of one's character. When God justifies someone, He declares them to be legally righteous in His sight. Justification is a one-time step in the process of human redemption. It is distinct from sanctification, which is the way through which God makes us more and more like Christ (with our cooperation). Justification paves the way for sanctification, but sanctification is not what makes us right before God. So now that we understand what justification means, how exactly can we be justified?

Galatians 2:16 clearly states that man is justified by faith in Jesus, not by works of the law. The COGs, however, equivocate on this point. They acknowledge that we can never do anything to earn salvation, but then add that, going forward, we are responsible for maintaining the  justification through which we receive salvation. UCG specifically covers this erroneous concept of ongoing justification on pages 90 and 91 of its booklet, The New Covenant: Does it Abolish God's Law?

The problem is, this theory unequivocally ties our salvation to our works, which contradicts Ephesians 2:8-9. Furthermore, if we must maintain our forgiven state through obedience and repentance, the only logical conclusion is that we must achieve a perfect record of both in this life. Otherwise, our record will be tarnished, our white garments soiled with sin. There is no other exit strategy.

Ironically, just a few weeks after I made this point, UCG's  Beyond Today program posted a daily video segment entitled "Exit Strategy." Early in the clip, host Steve Myers cites Hebrews 11 as the model exit strategy for our lives. What does he say this model is? Live as the heroes of faith did - realize this life isn't what it's all about, embrace God's promises, put your trust and faith in God's promises, His plan and in God Himself.

Guess what? I agree with that! Surprised? Remember that COG teachings often seem to agree with Protestants up front. They only diverge further down the road, maligning evangelical Christianity to their followers using proof-texts and cognitive dissonance. For example, when discussing justification, UCG agrees with Protestants in stating that believers are justified or aligned with God upon repentance and faith in Christ. (The New Covenant: Does it Abolish God's Law?, p. 91). However, UCG then claims that, even after their "initial" justification, Christians must be continually justified or reconciled when we fall "out of alignment through sin."

"Every sin is a very serious matter - requiring renewed repentance," UCG tells us on page 90 of the New Covenant booklet. "In fact, neglecting to repent over an extended period can eventually lead to rejecting God and losing salvation. Thus, each occasion of seeking and receiving God's forgiveness is essentially a renewed salvation - salvation from rejecting God and the terrible end that would lead to." (page 90 of the booklet).

Again, this sounds good in theory. Who would say that sin is acceptable? Who believes that failing to repent doesn't damage our relationship with God? Not me. Again, the problem comes when we follow ongoing justification to its logical conclusion. If every sin requires renewed repentance, then logically we must repent of every sin or risk losing our eternal life. If the COGs claim we can lose our salvation through our actions, then by default they must also endorse the opposite - that our actions can earn us salvation.

What's worse, JUST having a perfect record of repentance isn't good enough, according to some COG literature. Do you remember our imaginary courtroom in my previous post? Well, the COGs have a courtroom too, which UCG aptly describes on page 16 of its booklet,  Transforming Your Life - The Process of Conversion. The difference is, in these proceedings, we are found guilty each time we sin and are subsequently pardoned by God. "If a judge pardons someone of a crime, he expects that person to cease his criminal acts. He doesn't pardon him so he can continue his life of lawbreaking. Likewise we are to turn away from sinful acts and thoughts."

So are we to cease from sinning, or just turn away from our sinful acts and thoughts? Anyone I've asked in the COGs claims it's the latter, but logic dictates it must be the former. And UCG backs this logic up with its own definition of true repentance: "repentance is to cease from sin - to quit transgressing God's laws." (Transforming Your Life,  page 9). How can this definition support anything but a perfect record?

If that's not enough pressure for you, consider how many pardons you should need if you are sincere about your repentance. After all, "godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted, but the sorrow of the world produces death." (2 Corinthians 7:10). Most human judges would doubt your sincerity after a certain number of pardons. Regardless, if you're overcoming your sins, you certainly won't be asking for pardons at age 75 for the same sins you were committing when you were 30.  According to the COG salvation model, we are growing and maturing until we have overcome a vague, undefined percentage of our sins at the end of our lives. But James 2:10 reminds us of the true standard - if we stumble on even one point, we are guilty of breaking the whole thing.

Only one person has ever left the courtroom the COGs describe with a righteous verdict. Trust me, you won't be the second. But in the courtroom of biblical Christianity, the highest power in the universe has promised to declare you righteous, or innocent, when you acknowledge your sin, repent and place your faith in the shed blood of Jesus. Your condemnation has been placed on Him, and there is no one who is able to appeal God's decision.  "Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. (Romans 8:33)."

Let's consider our chances in each courtroom as we visit Jesus' teachings in Matthew 5. We'll start in verses 21-22. We can all agree we're guilty of sin if we murder someone. But what if we're just angry with a brother over something petty, or call him a fool when we're fighting? Look ahead to verses 43-45. Are we sinning when we don't show love to someone who has persecuted us? Ignore their physical needs if they are destitute? What if we don't pray for them? At what point does our action or inaction become sin?

It's only when we multiply these instances to include everyone we've ever met and every private thought we've ever had that we fully comprehend the mountain of sin under which we are buried. And we're just talking about repenting, not overcoming. At least for now. To assert that we could somehow repent of each and every sin is laughable. Is UCG really teaching that a perfect record of repentance is possible, and furthermore, necessary for salvation?

Like it or not, that's the only logical conclusion of UCG's teachings. Steve Myers' video might get high public relations points with its strong references to faith. But when you look beyond the sound bites, his own church teaches - in writing - that each time we sin, we fall from God's grace, and each time we repent, we are renewing our salvation. In short, we must maintain our justified state through our works.

And really, that's what Myers hints at near the segment's end. He concludes that "our exit strategy has to be living that exit strategy, living by the way of God now, so we can look forward to the true Kingdom of God." In this same segment, he defines an "exit strategy" as an objective to get out of a situation once something's been achieved. So if I understand correctly, our objective (our plan) to get out of a situation (this life) is by living according to that objective. Our plan is to live by the plan? Tell me how I do that. What does that even mean? When you boil things down, once again, we're back to hoping we have tried hard enough, been good enough, gone over our checklist closely enough (never mind determining what's actually on the checklist.) Just hoping we've been good enough is a far cry from having full faith in God for salvation, as Myers seems to claim.

This is not just a matter of semantics, according to evangelical Christian theologian John Piper. Misunderstanding this issue can undermine our entire Christian walk. If our struggle against sin is made part of our justification, much of the foundation for successful warfare has been removed, and we are fighting a battle that we cannot win, Piper says.

"The battle will be engaged differently without this faith, and the fallout cannot be a happy one over the long haul," Piper explains on page 50 of his book, Counted Righteous in Christ. Our unity with Christ (Romans 6:5) through justification establishes the relationship with God we need to make progress in sanctification. This assurance of our favor with God and our reconciliation to Him are the foundation for our Christian walk. Security in His love and acceptance give us joy and peace as we honestly face our sins. Without this confidence, we are locked in a constant struggle to maintain our salvation by our performance. This daily battle results in a spirit of guilt and fear, not power, love and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).

My list of examples from Matthew 5 is intended to show just how short of God's standards we fall, not to give you a new checklist. If you've read this blog recently, you already know what I think about checklists. You see, the COGs have programmed in us a righteousness checklist the size of a bingo card, when God's actual standard is more the size of a billboard. We put down our chips for things like Sabbath-keeping and abstaining from murder, believing we'll get BINGO by the end of our lives and win a trip to the first resurrection. When it comes right down to it, many of us feel like we have little need for forgiveness, which is why we are so willing to embrace errant doctrines like ongoing justification. In the back of our minds, we devalue the magnitude of Jesus' sacrifice. We are in a catch- 22 situation where we've reduced God's requirements for salvation through righteous living to a level that almost seems achievable. But when we reject the doctrine of imputed righteousness, in reality, we embrace "doing it on our own." (I know, we say we are using the Holy Spirit as a tool. But we put the cart before the horse and spin our wheels when we "use" the Spirit instead of letting the  Spirit "use" us.) Sure, Jesus died for our past sins, but, hey, we did a lot of work, too! If we realized just how great our need for forgiveness really was, we would be like the woman weeping at Jesus' feet, not Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). I suspect this is exactly why God disconnected our salvation from our works - so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:9).

The Sinai Covenant - sometimes referred to as the Law - was never intended as a means to salvation, according to Romans 4:14. Many scriptures indicate God knew that Israel would fail, and that a New Covenant would be necessary. Instead, its purpose was to show what constituted a violation for Israel (God's chosen nation which was under that covenant), and to show us that righteousness could never, ever be attained by following it (Romans 3:20-21). Following it is helpful if we keep the whole thing - all of it - 100 percent (Romans 2:25). But if we stumble at just one point, we are guilty of breaking the whole thing (James 2:10). Most importantly, the Sinai Covenant was intended to demonstrate mankind's desperate need for a Savior. If God's chosen nation - which witnessed countless miracles and was richly physically blessed for obedience to its covenant - couldn't succeed, who on earth could? This is what Paul meant when described the law as a tutor to bring us to Christ, so that we could be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24).

Quit trying to obtain, maintain or cling on to your salvation through your own actions. Be honest with yourself about your life, your heart, your motivations. It's vitally important to recognize the magnitude of our sinfulness and see our efforts to maintain our righteousness for the filthy rags they are Isaiah 64:6).  Only then can we understand that our only hope for salvation is to fully place our faith in Jesus. And yes, I know that scripture symbolically associates righteous acts with clean, white linen. It's important to note that this passage is talking about people who have been justified and are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. This means that these righteous acts are the Holy Spirit's righteous acts through us, and not our own righteous acts with a boost from the Holy Spirit. And to remember these works serve as evidence that a person has been saved, not that they could ever save them. Nothing from themselves can. Not striving to keep the Sabbath better, exhaustively researching Doritos ingredients or calculating the Holy Days by lunar observation. Even if we followed them as well as Old Testament heroes like Isaiah, it wouldn't make a difference. In Isaiah 64:5, the prophet states that God is angry even with the righteous man that He meets. The context indicates Isaiah includes himself in this statement. So even the righteous ones in Israel - those who faithfully observed the Sabbath and Holy Days and other tenets of the Sinai Covenant to the best of their ability - are included in that statement. Is there any chance that we do these things today better than Isaiah did? Polishing the outside of the cup is futile when the inside is filthy.

When we renounce any confidence in our own goodness or actions and fully place our faith in Jesus, the penalty for our sin is credited to Him. And His righteousness is credited, or imputed, to us, as it was Abraham (Romans 4:4-8; 20-25). He who wrote this passage gave up everything to follow Christ, but regarded all of it as worthless trash, "that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith (Philippians 3:9)."

And this, my friends, is why Paul was confident enough to write: "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1)." When God looks at one who has trusted Christ, He looks at us with Jesus-colored glasses, so to speak. Our sins are covered in His righteousness when we are justified. We are not to use this grace as an excuse to sin, as this same apostle instructed. We have been bought at a price, and we have a responsibility to obey the commands Jesus and His apostles gave once we have been redeemed. But when we fully comprehend the magnitude of the sacrifice Jesus made for us, our response will be one of love, gratitude and obedience to His teachings. One with a regenerate heart understands the folly and futility of a checklist mentality.

Imputed righteousness was not Plan B when Israel went astray. Jesus was slain for your sins and mine from the foundation of the world. Repent of your sins, place your full faith in Him, pledge to follow Him and accept the free gift of salvation. This is God's exit strategy, and it always has been.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourselfit is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Thank You For The Response

There was a good response during the 5 days the book "Bible Prophecy - God's Agenda and Your Part In It" was available free on Amazon. Books downloaded all over the plane; besides the USA, some went to the UK, Germany and India etc. I couldn't be more pleased. ABD writers don't write to get anything other than a sense of being of some help to some one. So I can legitimately say thank you to those who read ABD articles or take a free e-book. When my wife first started this blog, I had never intended to write anything for public consumption, but she asked me to help her and I couldn't say no. There are readers from every continent, and not too infrequently from non-Christian nations. 
With what is now occurring in Israel, it is time for people everywhere to make themselves aware of where we are in prophecy, as well as get right with God by joining in with Christ in the New Covenant. No we can't know when the hour of Christ's return is, but we can know the season. It's interesting how the person who reviewed my book got the idea that I set dates. I appreciated the review, but I stated clearly that various future schedules are speculative. I'd just like to make that point clear. It's the setting of dates (and other such nonsense) that precipitated the creation of ABD in the first place. We are surely in the season, but the purveyor  alarm fatigue have been very successful in dulling receptivity to prophecy. My hope is that we all resist this and do similarly to what the Jewish people did for so many centuries and say: "next year with Christ Jesus in his kingdom."

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bible Prophecy – God's Agenda and Your Part in It – is again free

Bible Prophecy – God's Agenda and Your Part in It – is again free on Amazon for five days, from July 9, 2014 to July 13, 2014, Bible Prophecy-God's Agenda And Your Part In It.

This book began as an article on ABD but kept getting bigger to where it made more sense to put it on Amazon as a unit. This meant I couldn't use my pen name, in case the "Glen Paul Erickson" instead of 'Luc" on the cover pic is confusing.

2Tim 4:8 says: "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." This makes it clear that we aren't to forget about the coming of Christ as is so often the case.

The Jewish people ended their Passover Seder (and said among themselves at other occasions) “next year in Jerusalem.” This was a hope built on a promise. And though it seemed like it would never happen, it did. The Jewish nation was reborn, however impossible the world said it was. Interestingly, they never let the hope interfere with their normal activities and responsibilities. Those who believe in Jesus as Lord and messiah have a similar promise: Luk 21:28When these things” (Jesus had been describing) “begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  Christians, to the largest extent, seem not to consider this important. Not that I blame them. I told my wife's eldest daughter about what my book was about and she said that she and her family were no longer interested in such things. She was kept informed about the whole Ron Weinland charade of prophet-hood and was told to expect the Lord with urgent appeals for her recognition of the man as legitimate. Now she doesn't want to hear such “nonsense.”
I wrote an article at the time to make the point that such deception, as Weinland was trying to lure people into, had just the above described effect. I compared it to the dropping of loads of aluminum foil by the allies during WW2 to confuse German radar. The Christian's radars have indeed been confused. The season has arrived for the bride to gather her maidens and become vigilant for the arrival of the bridegroom. The deceivers have won a victory. Many like Ron Weinland have won a victory for the enemy, rather intended or not. Some no longer say: next year with Christ, and a relative few appear interested in prophecy. It has, to so large an extent, become the sphere of the mentally ill and paranoid; at least this is how popular media presents people who pursue such interests.

I never bought what Ron Weinland was selling because of having studied and pondered the prophetic writings for 40 years. Because I didn't arrive at my eschatological conclusions based on any accepted line of reasoning, most of which have been highly influenced by the paradigm of the reformation period which sought to demonize the Catholic Church.  I do see things differently. For example: I see the prophecy of twenty-three hundred evenings and mornings as specifying the exact date of the Jewish regaining of the Temple mount in 1967 because the word translated 'reconsicrated' in Dan 8:14  merely means to make something right; (He said to me, "It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated."). The word translated 'reconsecrated' is H6663  tsadaq  tsaw-dak'a primitive root; to be (causatively, make) right (in a moral or forensic sense). The word sanctuary actually means holy place: H6944  qodesh  ko'-desh from H6942; sacred place or thing; rarely abstract, sanctity. Out of 168 times the word is used in scripture, it only refers to the “sanctuary' 4 times; 98 time it simply means “holiness,” 

The timeline of 2,300 evenings and mornings begins in 333 BC when Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, and if the symbolic increment of time is intended to mean years, all we have to do to test this is to do some addition and see if the results are biblically significant. So add 1967 to 333 (1967 + 333 = 1967), and the result is the year the Jews regained the Holy Mount. Something was made right at the holy place, but not completely. The book I offer has this and numerous other observations with more background and detail to make the case. The book ends with a look at the Jewish marriage customs as they relate to the words of Jesus and the resurrected body, which is the “Your Part in It” aspect the books title refers to.

Amazon won’t allow me to make the book free with the exception of a few days every 90 days, but I set the price at the lowest possible. I extend my thanks to those who purchased the book as that paid Amazon for their services. Graphics from the book don’t show up well on small screens so have been posted here

Remember the words of Paul 2Ti 4:8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11