Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Loose Ends on "Born Again"

After taking a break for the spring days, today, we'd like to tie up some loose ends from our analysis of Herbert Armstrong's Booklet, Just What Do You Mean Born Again.

You're probably thinking, "Finally!" We know the feeling. Though this study is meant to address the major doctrinal flaws in the booklet, we know it does not address each and every page. Still, we think we've covered enough ground to at least establish reasonable doubt of Armstrong's take on "born again."

Maybe you're still wondering why, in 2015, we would rehash a publication last updated in 1972. Well, the booklet may be more than 40 years old, but many of its false conclusions are alive and well in today's Churches of God. The Living Church of God; Church of God, a Worldwide Association; United Church of God; Philadelphia Church of God; Church of God, an International Community and many others still teach Armstrong's basic doctrines about salvation based on his reproduction analogy. (Incidentally, UCG still affirms HWA's teachings on "born again" out of one side of their mouth, while the other side quietly whispered he was wrong in their 2002 study paper on "Born Again.")

In fact, the only group we know of in the Church of God community that has rejected this false teaching is John Ritenbaugh's Church of the Great God. Ritenbaugh is the church's founder and pastor, and has taken considerable effort to refute HWA's traditional teachings on regeneration in his series, "Born Again or Begotten?".  Last time, Ritenbaugh helped us debunk HWA's interpretation of John 3:8. Today, he'll help us address Armstrong's misinterpretations of 1 John 3, which HWA supported through his faulty interpretation of John 3:8.

First John 3:2 describes Christians as children of God, but also states that our final form has not yet been revealed. Armstrong points out that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50), and the rest of the passage (verses 42-54) tells us that glorified humans will resemble "the image of the heavenly Man." (verse 49). What is that image? Armstrong directs our attention to the description in Revelation 1:14-15, which he snidely notes does not fit today's so-called "born again" Christian.

"We shall appear like him at the second coming to earth.  What will he be like? Like the glorified Christ - his eyes blaze like fire, feet like burnished brass, face shines like the sun," Armstrong said. "And that is the way you and I shall look, if and when we are finally born of God! These deceived people who talk about having had a "born-again" experience certainly don't look like THAT!" (Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 40).

Voila! Your Methodist neighbor clearly doesn't look like that now. That settles it. Believers are literally "born again" into the Kingdom of God at Christ's return. Game over. Or maybe not.

But Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians, never mentions being "born again" in the context of a resurrection, in 1 Corinthians or anywhere else, Ritenbaugh points out. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 5:8, Paul uses the word "born" in terms of his calling. Throughout the Bible, the final step of the process is consistently described in terms of glorification, change or transformation through resurrection, not a birth (1 Corinthians 15:51-54, Philippians 3:21, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). And Romans 1:4, another scripture HWA used to "prove" Christ was born again at His resurrection, in reality, indicates the resurrection proved Christ was who He said He was. In other words, the resurrection was the evidence - the reason - that we have faith in Christ. Not the thing that made Him the Christ.

He Cannot Sin

The final argument from the booklet I'd like to address is from I John 3:9:

"Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God."

Armstrong juxtaposed this verse with 1 John 1:8, which tells us that we deceive ourselves if we think we have no sin. Do the two verses contradict one another, or is there another explanation, HWA mused.  Naturally, he has an explanation. First John 1:8-9 plainly tells us that converted Christians do sin, though not habitually, deliberately or willfully.

So what about 1 John 3:9, which tells us it's impossible for Christians to sin? It must mean that those who have been born of God cannot sin. Do you still sin? Then you are not born of God yet, HWA argues, and won't be until the resurrection.

Other theologians agree that 1 John 1:8 and 1 John 3:9 do not contradict one another, but for another reason. The latter verse uses the Greek perfect tense, indicating an ongoing lifestyle, not an individual occurrence, according to evangelical theologian, professor and author Wayne Grudem. Grudem explains that John means that the Holy Spirit will keep the regenerated man for living a sinful lifestyle, not prevent him from individual lapses (Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 704).

Even if you don't like that explanation, HWA's reasoning contradicts itself within the context verse 9 in isolation (not to mention the entire passage).

(I John 3:9) Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.

Suppose this verse really does discuss Christians who have been resurrected, or "literally born" into God's Kingdom. Then why would God's "seed" remain in one who has been born? According to HWA's analogy, we are no longer talking about someone who's only "begotten"  at this point. But seed indicates a conceptual, fetal, incomplete status.

If that's not enough, the whole passage is exhorting and instructing brethren to show love to one another in this life. Explaining that love is evidence of true Christianity. Why would John fast-forward to the resurrection in verse 9, when the context of the passage indicates he is talking about current conduct?

UCG's 2002 study paper on "born again" even takes this position:

"The context of I John chapter 3 is unmistakably referring to the present Christian life. It is not referring to the future life in the resurrection." (Born Again, p. 18)

While we plan to spend one more post explaining what "so-called Christians" believe about this topic, we'd like to close with a few statements from Ritenbaugh's and UCG's writings on "born again". Our comments are in bold.

"In the end, the begotten-again analogy is found completely lacking in describing what happens to begin our spiritual life. What has not changed in the least is its practical application to Christian life. However, what has been clarified should impress upon us even more forcefully is that, because our names are already entered into the Book of Life, we are already in God's Family Kingdom with our citizenship already issued, and there is every reason we should make it to the end. Therefore, we should be all the more responsible and urgent to bring glory to our God." (Ritenbaugh, Born Again or Begotten, Part 3)  The analogy is completely lacking, but still has practical application in our lives? Hmmmm...

"The analogy of being begotten and in the womb of the church is not only scripturally wrong, it is totally inadequate when God commands us to do practical activities normal to Christian life" (such as pray, fast, sacrifice, repent, forgive, show mercy and many others)." (Ritenbaugh, Born Again or Begotten, Part 3). Again, it is scripturally wrong and totally inadequate, but it still applies to us how?

"The individual is not literally reborn at the time of conversion. On the other hand, a significant chance takes place in this life - so significant that it can be considered the beginning of a new life." (UCG, Born Again, p. 6) Um.  The beginning of a new life usually is called a birth. 

"Therefore, while the fetal analogy is not found specifically in the Bible as an application to Christians, it is helpful to understanding the salvation process." (UCG, Born Again, p. 30). Why cling to an analogy that is not found in the Bible to explain a Biblical process? Especially when there is a perfectly good biblical analogy several New Testament writer used to explain the process. Which, again, many within the COG community admit is biblically sound. 

"This (the fetal analogy) is a good analogy and it is theologically sound." (UCG, Born Again, p. 28). Wait. They just said this analogy is not found in the Bible. How can it be theologically sound?  

"It may be difficult to distinguish from the context between that which takes place at conversion and that which takes place at the time of the resurrection. But why should we attempt to do so if both apply?" (UCG, Born Again, p. 16). Because the man who founded your church ridiculed "so-called Christians" who accepted this conclusion as false brethren; and because you continue to do so today. Because your church makes it a litmus test for true Christians. It is disingenuous to straddle the fence now to try to simultaneously attempt to preserve your tithe base and save face, theologically speaking.  

After reading these statements, one must infer that UCG and the many former UCG ministers who lead other COG organizations today hold onto their teaching largely because allegiance to Armstrong's ideas and writings are at least as dear to them than the ideas and writings of John, Peter and Paul. How about you? Is your allegiance to a man's extra-biblical teachings or to the Word of God?

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, April 10, 2015

Bread and Wine

So how did you do?

Oh, come on, you know what I'm talking about. Where did you find leavening this week?

Today was the last Day of Unleavened Bread for those of you in the Churches of God. Traditionally, at services today, you swapped anecdotes about the most unlikely place you found leavening this week. A sandwich in the glove compartment of your car. Cracker crumbs that fell from the pages of that book you pulled off the shelf. Maybe that hand vacuum cleaner bin you forgot to empty.

It's funny, a week and a half ago you found those crumbs so vile that some of you baptized your toaster and scrubbed your pantry shelves with a toothbrush. No judging here. I was in the habit of "deleavening" my sock drawer, even though I have never, even once, eaten cake in my bedroom with socks on my hands, and then put them back in the drawer.  Anyway, where you were frenzied last week, today you chuckled, clucked your tongue and said, well, "God doesn't expect us to be perfect."

What does God have to say about those crumbs, or the sin you believe it symbolizes? Even the stuff way back in the dark corners of your life?

(James 2:10) For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.

Or should I say, whoever keeps the Days of Unleavened Bread, and yet finds one cracker, he is guilty of violating the whole thing.

(Revelation 3:5) He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels.

Maybe it should be, he who overcomes, who gets rid of all his sin, shall be clothed in white garments. In his pockets no crumbs shall be found.

Hmmmm... this is where the classic COG cognitive dissonance comes in. On the one hand, we believe that God doesn't expect us to be perfect, and that our works do not earn us salvation. On the other hand, we believe that our efforts, in both moral matters and in cherry-picked rites from the Sinai Covenant, help maintain our salvation.

So how much leavening, er, sin, do you need to get out to properly "keep" the Days of Unleavened Bread? Better than me, who didn't participate? Better than your wife, who drives a van full of children who sustain themselves on goldfish crackers 51 weeks a year? Better than your minister? What threshhold is good enough? (Please click here for more information what was being discussed in 1 Corinthians 5 regarding the Days of Unleavened Bread)

It's easy to see why the Days of Unleavened Bread were a shadow intended to point Israel to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17). No matter how hard they tried, sin remained, sin returned. They repeated the ritual for decades. Each year, they tried. Each year, they failed. They could never clean out all the crumbs, all the stains of sin. They needed Jesus to do what they could never do themselves - reconcile them to God and clothe them in garments of righteousness. Where the Light is, the shadows flee. They are no longer needed. Once we have learned the lesson, we no longer need the tutor (Galatians 3:24-25).

Many of us the COGs think we have embraced Christ, yet we place much of their faith in our effors to follow the tutor. We know Jesus died for our sins, and that we cannot be justified through our works. But our misunderstandings about salvation lead us to accept false teachings like "maintaining" our justification through our track record of sin and repentance. Unable to shake the cognitive dissonance, we hang our head in shame, and pray that God shows us mercy, or that He looks on the heart and determines we have been "good enough." Is this outlook the peace that surpasses all understanding? The spirit of joy, and of a sound mind?

Since the Days of Unleavened Bread are just about over, maybe it's time to switch to a different metaphor. Let's turn to John 2, the miracle at the Wedding at Cana. Historically, the COGs have missed the point of this lesson. They make it all about how Jesus produced high-quality wine. About the richness and abundance of God's Kingdom.

Christ's miracles often revealed deeper spiritual truths. He gave sight to the blind, signifying His ability to give spiritual sight and discernment to those who place their faith in Him. Those who rejected Him remained spiritually blind. (John 9:40-41). He raised a dead man to life. This demonstrated both His power over death and the new life available through faith in Him. He cursed the fig tree (Mark 11), showing His qualification to pronounce final judgment on fruitless humans (Matthew 7:19).

So is it likely that the miracle at Cana, Jesus' first miracle, was really just about top-shelf wine? Or is there a deeper spiritual truth that the COGs miss in their misunderstandings about salvation?

(John 2:6) Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water."  And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast." And they took it. When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, "Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!".

These waterpots were used for ceremonial washing for the Jews, who were expected to wash their hands both before and after eating in order to be considered clean. These pots were not exactly the sterilized drinking glasses that come out of our dishwasher. They had held a lot of dirty water from a lot of grubby hands. They were not unlike the cup Jesus described in Matthew 23:25-26. But how do we clean the cup from the inside, as Christ instructed?

Jesus took these dirty, common vessels, filled them, and transformed the contents into a totally different substance. This is a picture of what Jesus does with each Christian. We come to Him as dirty clay vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). We are helpless to clean ourselves. God fills us, then transforms us. We are already a creation in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17). Just as they miss the message of transformation in the miracle at Cana, the COGs miss the message of 2 Corinthians 5 because they're too busy trying to clean and transform themselves. With the "help" of their Holy Spirit power tool. It is not getting rid of the spiritual crumbs that ensures salvation. We will naturally have fewer crumbs because of our salvation. It is an effect, not a cause.

We, of course, must be submissive to this process, to God's will. We can't be filled, can't be transformed, if we are not in proximity to the source. This may require effort, active striving, resisting sin. As well as engaging in spiritual disciplines like worship, prayer, Bible study, fasting and the like.
And we should be bearing fruit and demonstrate good works, as James said. But that fruit is the evidence of our faith, evidence of our justification, not the thing that brings it about.

At the end of the day, scripture commands us to be filled with the Spirit, not to fill ourselves (Ephesians 5:18). Like those waterpots, which held 160 pounds of water at the very least, we are unable to move ourselves. We like Paul, need someone to save us from ourselves. Who is that? That someone is Jesus. Our primary responsibility is to place faith in Christ, not ourselves. We will bear much fruit when we are thusly connected to the Vine.

(John 6:28-29) Then they said to Him, "what shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said unto them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."

Beloved children of God, you already believe the blood of Jesus covers your sins. Scripture tells you that you are already unleavened. You can choose to remain in the shadows of Sinai, trying to sweep out crumbs from the corners. Or you can trust Jesus to do what you cannot - clean you from the inside and transform you into something new. Stop putting new wine into old wineskins. Step fully into the New Covenant and place your full faith - not just part of it - in Jesus' finished work on the cross.

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, April 3, 2015

Should Christians Celebrate the "Night to Be Much Observed"?

"Should Christians celebrate Easter?" the pastel-colored magazine in my mailbox pointedly asks. "Nowhere does the Bible tell Christians to celebrate this holiday!"

I'd like to turn a similar question back to the well-intentioned Church of God ministers who have so graciously flooded my mailbox in recent weeks.

Should Christians celebrate the Night to be Much Observed? Nowhere does the Bible tell Christians to observe this occasion.

WHAT?!?!?!? How on earth can I say that? It's a Night. To. Be. Much. Observed. The Bible clearly tells us to remember it. It's in the name, for crying out loud.

Let's turn to Exodus 12, the passage the COGs claim discusses this supposedly ancient celebration.

(EXODUS 12:6-7) "Now you shall keep it (the lamb) until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it."

(EXODUS 12:13-13) "Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt So this day shall be to you a memorial, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord throughout your generations. You shall keep it as a feast by an everlasting ordinance."

(EXODUS 12:24-27) "And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever. It will come to pass when you come to the land which the Lord has given you, just as He promised, that you shall keep this service. And it shall be, when your children say to you, 'What do you mean by this service?' that you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households."

(EXODUS 12:41-42) "And it came to pass that at the end of the four hundred and thirty years - on that very same day - it came to pass that all the armies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. It is a night of solemn observance to the Lord for bringing them out of the land of Egypt. This is that night of the Lord, a solemn observance for all the children of Israel throughout their generations."

Verse 43 launches back into regulations for keeping the Passover. So we have discussion of the Passover from Exodus 12:1 through verse 51, the end of the chapter. The entire context is Passover. What event changed Pharaoh's heart? What did God use to win their freedom? The death of the firstborn, on Passover. When did Pharaoh call for Moses and tell the Israelites to leave? While it was still dark, on Passover. Passover is the night of importance, the solemn observance, the night to be remembered. There is nothing that indicates a second observance. We can debate the fourteenth versus fifteenth, we can rehash the Quartodeciman Controversy, but we can't debate the fact that the event this passage discusses remembering is Passover.

Verse 42, the scripture the COGs use to establish this fabricated celebration, tells us the observance in question is to be solemn. The Passover is unarguably solemn, because of what occurred that night - the slaughter of a lamb, and thousands of firstborns, and even moreso because of what it foreshadowed - the death of the Savior. This tone of the COG Passover service seems much more in line with what verse 42 describes than the alleged Night to Be Much Observed. It doesn't appear that the Israelites celebrated their deliverance until Exodus 15, after Pharaoh's army was drowned in the sea. Humanly speaking, this makes sense to me. Would I have been pleased the morning after the Passover, to learn we were leaving? Absolutely. But I can see myself a little shell shocked. Grieved at the deaths of so many Egyptians. A little post traumatic stress disorder from the plagues. And then there was the matter of the Egyptian army pursuing them. All in all, I suspect the day after the Passover was not a big party for the children of Israel.

And really, it's not exactly a reason to party for Christians today, either. The COGs tell us that this supposed Night to Be pictures Israel's deliverance from Egypt and our deliverance from sin through Christ's death. It is a night to prepare an elaborate meal, gather with brethren and rejoice. The tone of this tradition is tragically incongruent with what the evening allegedly marks.

What do the COGs tell us we are celebrating? Christ's victory over sin, achieved by His death. Is the end result of the story something to celebrate? Absolutely. But is His actual death something to celebrate? I think not. Do you start planning an elaborate party when a close relative passes? "Hey guys, Aunt Edna is dead, would you please pass the prime rib? And did you SEE the dessert table?".

Even we "deceived", "so-called Christians" get this point. Arguments about the timing of the crucifixion aside, have you ever been to a Good Friday service? It's solemn, bordering on somber. We know how the story ends, we know we have the victory, and we plan to celebrate it just days later. But still, there is sadness in the fact that our Savior suffered and died for our sins. It's a little harsh to celebrate while His body was still in the grave.

How did Christ's original disciples spend the night after the Passover? Were they celebrating the night of this alleged observance, while their teacher's body lay in the garden tomb?  It seems unlikely. There is no mention of a celebration that night, and John 20:11 tells us that Mary Magdalene was still weeping when she went to the tomb. The disciples appeared to be visibly upset when Christ met them on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:17. Lavish food was the furthest thing from their minds.

I know, we can't just go on emotion.  It's all about the commanded timing. Well, if the correct timing is so important, why do the gospels differ on as whether the crucifixion happened on the first Day of Unleavened Bread or the day before? There are many exceptions in Jewish law that could explain why Jesus and His disciples ate the Passover early, if they truly did. And what they observed obviously was the Passover. That's what Jesus called it, and He would know. But the larger point is, if taking the bread and wine on the self-same day as the Hebrew Passover were a matter of Christian obedience or salvation, the timeline in the synoptic gospels and John's gospel probably should match. There is no wiggle room when it comes to salvation. Perhaps this is one clue that the exact date one takes the bread and the wine doesn't matter, as long as we obey and do it in the reverent manner the New Testament proscribes.

Paul's use of the Greek word hosakis, an adverb that indicates multiplicity, in 1 Corinthians 11:25 is another indication that taking the bread and the wine wasn't a once-a-year thing. Spiros Zodhiates' Complete Word Study of the New Testament tells us the word can also be rendered "as many times as you do this." One must at least admit this isn't iron-clad evidence that the bread and wine were to be eaten annually, only on the Passover date. Christian recommitment and examination are more effective when they take place on a more frequent basis. I don't know about you, but I can't even remember what I ate for dinner on this day last week. Remembering my struggles and failures from 11 months ago is not a particularly effective assignment.

In short, the case for celebrating Herbert W Armstrong's Night to Be Much Observed is flimsy at best. Christians who honestly consider its alleged timing and symbolism may find it a tad distasteful. The COGs have us celebrate Christ's victory when His body was barely cold in the grave, yet they ignore the miracle of His resurrection. If were commanded to keep it, that would be one thing. But we aren't. It isn't even in the Bible.

I'm sorry, guys. I'm really not trying to be spiteful. I know some of you have Night to Be traditions that you find rich and meaningful. I know some find it a great time to fellowship. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. But if we're going to be honest, if we're going to believe our Bibles rather than men, well, the Night to Be isn't in the Bible. If it's wrong for man to create his own religious traditions, well, then, the Night to Be has to go. So does the opening night service at the Feast of Tabernacles. So do Purim and Hanukkah, the latter of which we have evidence Jesus observed. But that's another story for another day.

Wait! I have a great idea.  I'll stop now and promise not to further criticize your man-made Night to Be celebration if you promise not to criticize my man-made celebration of the Resurrection on Sunday. Do we have a deal?

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