Thursday, January 28, 2016

Abraham's Faith and Works - or Faith and Parachutes, Part 3

Abraham. Just reading the name to myself, I hear it being spoken by someone like James Earl Jones. Imagine trying to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him in God’s Kingdom. You’d feel about two inches tall by comparison. I know I would.

Abraham is mentioned prominently in the “faith chapter” – Hebrews 11 – and for good reason. There he is lauded for leaving his home for an unknown land and for offering up his son, Isaac.

Wait a minute. Why would Abraham’s works be mentioned in the “faith” chapter? I must be thinking of Romans.

(Romans 4:2-5) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.

Ok, that makes more sense. But wait, isn't there another scripture, one that marries the two concepts?

(James 2:21-24) Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Hmmm. Now what?

The Churches of God love to exploit the seeming contradictions found within these passages to ridicule “so-called” Christianity’s teaching that salvation is by faith alone. Works are a requirement for those who wish to inherit eternal life, they object. Most of  today’s COGs are softer on the “or else” side of the works equation, but their founder, Herbert Armstrong, was known for teaching that believers were comparable to spiritual fetuses, and God would abort believers who did not grow enough or overcome enough sin.

As a result, today’s COGs are populated by a generation of people who know they can’t earn their salvation, but hope they don’t screw up badly enough to lose it. After years of well-meaning, uneducated, and dogmatic messages from a shrinking pool of speakers, they see nothing wrong with the mutually exclusive beliefs that you can’t earn right standing with God, but you must work for the rest of your life to keep your right standing with God. I know. I was one of them. For decades.

So who got it right when it comes to Abraham? James or Paul? Or, since both were inspired by God, is there another explanation? Today and in the coming weeks, as I continue delayed “Faith and Parachutes” posts (see part 1 and part 2), I’d like to look at some key events in the life of Abraham to get a better understanding of the correlation between faith and works, resolving the tension between Paul and James.


The story begins in Genesis 12:1-3, which lists the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. God tells Abram to leave Haran; promises to make a great nation of him and that he would bless all the families of the earth through him. Abram obeys, then famine and Lot’s captivity temporarily derail the story line.

In chapter 15, we see Abram lamenting that he has no heir. God responds by promising descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. In Genesis 15:6, Abram decided to trust God regarding his descendants, and God accounted his faith for righteousness. Simply put, this means that because of Abraham's faith, he found favor with God. God credited Christ's righteousness to Abraham's "sin account" and credited Abraham's sin to Jesus.

The statement made in Genesis 15:6 is so simple, yet so significant. But rather than considering the logical implications of this statement, groups like the Living Church of God try to immediately divert our attention:

“Taking this scripture alone seems to indicate that belief in the Lord is all that is necessary to be considered righteous. But James, the brother of Jesus, forcefully argues that without backing it up with action, belief is simply not enough.” ("Phil Sena, From Belief to Faith, Tomorrow's World , November-December 2015).
I'd like to offer my own follow-up scripture. We already read this passage, but it deserves a second look. Let's allow Paul to start unpacking the implications of this scripture.

(Romans 4:2-5) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace, but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.

This means that God considered Abraham legally righteous before Him. Abram was now entitled to eternal life (because of God's grace). Let that sink in for a minute. God did not account Christ’s righteousness to Abraham when he left Haran, when Isaac was conceived, or even when he attempted to sacrifice Isaac. He imputed Christ's righteousness to Abraham when the man decided to trust God and was simply staring up at the night sky.

No, God didn’t reward Abraham with salvation because he backed up the claim with action, despite what LCG's Phil Sena claims:

“Abraham believed that God could even resurrect Isaac back to physical life if He so willed.   This faith in God's power and goodness gave him the strength to obey God's command to sacrifice his son. "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, 'In Isaac your seed shall be called,' concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense" (Hebrews 11:17–19) Anyone can claim to 'believe God' —but backing up the claim with action is why God accounted Abraham's belief as righteousness."

How can I say that Christ's righteousness wasn't the payoff for obedience? Because that's what Romans 4:10-11 tells us:

How then was it (righteousness) accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also.

Abraham was circumcised in Genesis 17.  Simple math tells us that at least 14 years must have passed between Genesis 15:6 and the time God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his household (which included 13-year-old Ishmael, who was not yet conceived in Genesis 15:6).

Christ's righteousness was imputed to him before he was circumcised, and was not dependent upon his actions. Thankfully. Since the little bit we know of Abraham's track record during that intermittent period was not amazing. In the intervening verses, Abraham fathered a child with Sarah's maid and laughed in God's face.  Yet folks like LCG's Sena would have us believe that God credited Abraham with righteousness because of his actions.

“Anyone can claim to "believe God"—but backing up the claim with action is why God accounted Abraham's belief as righteousness,” Sena wrote.
If you tried to back Sena or other LCG comrades into a corner, I suppose they could argue that, back in Genesis 15, the omniscient God knew that Abraham would obey Him in Genesis 22 and therefore credited him with righteousness based on that knowledge. But that line of reasoning pushes LCG dangerously close accepting predestination – a doctrine they reject. If predestination were true, then God would know who would remain obedient from the beginning, your salvation would be sealed, and LCG and other COGs couldn't hold your eternal destiny over your head as blackmail for tithes and organizational loyalty. But if you feel your salvation is precarious, your fear makes you more likely to resign yourself to accepting their shenanigans and ultimatums.

This hypothetical desperate rebuttal becomes even more threatening to LCG when you consider how it refutes the false Armstrongist teaching that Jesus had to qualify to replace Satan as the ruler of the world. This false doctrine – which, in short, claims Jesus' victory was uncertain – is not consistent with several scriptures:

(Isaiah 53:4-5) Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. This “suffering servant” passage is prophetic, not speculative. It does not say "by His stripes we might be healed, depending on whether He is successful."

(John 3:14-15) And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. If this account from the book of Numbers depicted Christ, then surely His victory was assured at that time. Jesus wouldn't use it as an inspired example, then fail to follow through at the actual time this word picture symbolized.

(Revelation 13:8) All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Jesus was as good as slain from the foundation of the world, and his victory was assured. His sacrifice was not a hastily drawn-up plan B when Israel failed to keep its covenant with God.

Further, if our condition to “qualify” for salvation is based on Jesus' requirement to qualify, then  how solid is the case for either? God's decision to impute Christ's righteousness to Abraham clearly predated the crucifixion. He couldn't have done so if Christ's victory wasn't already certain.

But back to the main topic. Some would argue that Abraham's regeneration  and justification was what enabled his legendary works of obedience in the first place. This would makes sense. If we are to believe that heroes of faith like Abraham, Noah and Rahab were able to overcome their emnity with God on the strength of their own human efforts, then there is no need for Jesus’ death on the cross or the gift of the Holy Spirit. And isn't that really the point of Romans 4?

(Romans 4:2-4) For if Abraham was justified by works, be has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.

Abraham had faith, and the evidence of that faith manifest itself in his actions, as explained in James 2:22.

Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 

Like Abraham, God regenerates our hearts and counts us righteous because of our faith, not because of our works. Like Abraham, works of obedience should follow that give evidence of this invisible change. (if they don't, we need to examine where we really have faith, not just dig in and work harder). And like Abraham, we will still make mistakes.

Rather than scoff at the idea of salvation by faith, we should be grateful that we don't need to worry that every misstep will land us in the Lake of Fire. We should be thankful that the blood of Jesus covers our sins; be mindful that our sin is costly; be quick to repent, then go and strive to sin no more. We can rejoice in the knowledge that our works don't maintain our salvation; but instead, they give us the daily opportunity to serve our Father and bring honor and glory to His name.  

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

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ron Dart Passes Away

Ron Dart, liberal Armstrongist Minister and founder of Christian Educational Ministries, has passed away. From his Facebook page:
Ronald L. Dart died peacefully in his sleep early this Sabbath morning, January 23rd, from a prolonged battle with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
After the WCG exploded in 1995, I remember sitting with my family and listening to Ron Dart's messages (during his CGI days). He tended to be a lot easier to listen to, and softer in his approach. I visited one of his Feast of Tabernacles meetings in Tennessee once. It was actually a lot better than I thought it would be. The music was great.

Our sympathies to his family and friends.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Beyond Today magazine, the United Church of God and Herbert W Armstrong

We at As Bereans Did got wind of a new religious magazine - "Beyond Today" - that came off the presses last week. Who is publishing this new magazine? Do they have a church? One you'd like to attend? Are they a new group? What is their history?

Actually, we knew this magazine was coming for a while. And it's not new. Back in 2014, the United Church of God - the church that publishes "Beyond Today" - announced its plans to consolidate its media efforts under this name. UCG already produced a "Beyond Today" television program and featured Internet resources under the same banner. So it's now publishing its magazine, formerly known as the "Good News," under the "Beyond Today" name as well. During the initial announcement, UCG's Darris McNeely stated that UCG hoped that consolidating its different media outlets under one name would give it a greater brand and media recognition.

Our usual aim at ABD is to help questioning members of groups like UCG, the Living Church of God and other splinters of Herbert W Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God. But today, we want to talk to those of you who might be searching for information about Beyond Today.

Perhaps Beyond Today is your first exposure to the doctrines of Herbert W Armstrong.   If so, let us help get you up to speed. Armstrong founded the Worldwide Church of God, from which UCG and other groups splintered. Armstrong claimed to be an apostle who received direct revelation from Jesus Christ, despite the fact that hundreds of prophecies he made in God's name failed. Armstrong died in 1986; and in the years that followed, the cult's new leadership slowly changed WCG's doctrines in efforts to purge Armstrong's doomsday prophecies, false teachings and adopt more orthodox Christian teachings.

But Armstrong's doctrinal legacy legacy lives on in UCG and other WCG splinters, made up of WCG members who disagreed with the "church's" new direction. A group of former WCG ministers created the United Church of God, rather than joining with established splinter groups, in hopes of gathering together the disaffected members. Ironically, this "United" group has only continued to splinter over the past two decades along with other remnant groups from the Worldwide Church of God.

Maybe you've never heard of Armstrong, also known as HWA, or have only heard the COG version of his biography. If so, please consider the other side of HWA's  story.

In the past, UCG has been accused by more hard-core Armstrong devotees of distancing itself from "the apostle" whom God used to restore "the truth." Cynics might wonder whether abandoning the "Good News" title, which it carried over from Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, is intended to increase that distance.

UCG may try to publicly distance itself from Herbert Armstrong, but they still embrace HWA's debunked theory of British Israelism, which teaches that the United States, Britain and Western Europe are descended from the "lost 10 tribes of Israel." They reject many traditional Christian doctrines and celebrations based on the misguided 1800s-era "research" and conspiracy theories written by Alexander Hislop. Misunderstanding or misleading about traditional Christianity is standard practice among the COG ministers. Perhaps worst of all, UCG diminishes Jesus' sacrifice through the unbiblical doctrine of justification by works, or more accurately, maintenance of grace through their works. And once you accept these doctrines, this group teaches that you that you risk damnation if you ever question or depart from them.

UCG will probably try to position Beyond Today as a resource for Biblical truth and godly living. We at ABD are fans of godly living. There's little doubt that the folks at UCG have good intentions and want to turn people toward God and away from sin. We agree that sin is a bad thing, although we might disagree with them on the definition. And when you take the next step and actually attend a UCG church service, you'll find that UCG largely defines biblical righteousness as how well you follow their checklist - and that often boils down to how well you observe the seventh-day Sabbath and the Holy Days listed in Leviticus 23. Much of the time, instructions on Christian living takes a back seat to prophecy, church government, clean and unclean meats and other cherry-picked tenets of the Sinai Covenant. The veil is thick over their eyes (2 Corinthians 3:14-15). These things are the marks of God's "true church" - in fact, the COGs splinter and divide with ever-increasing frequency as they jostle for bragging rights to this title, based on different interpretations of the "proper" keeping of these doctrines. Apparently the division, slander and selfish ambition Jesus Christ forbade are acceptable as long as they facilitate proper Sabbath-keeping. Or a home office in the "proper" location. Or a righteously-funded media budget. If you still don't get the picture, might I suggest you Google topics like "UCG COGWA split," "Global Living Church of God split" or "Church of God AIC split."

If that wasn't enough, consider that Jesus Christ supposedly revealed these "truths" to Herbert Armstrong - the ones that UCG champions even today - during the same decade that HWA is alleged to have been committing incest with his daughter. That allegation cannot be simply waved away slander or an attack from Satan. That allegation was reported as a fact during Herbert Armstrong's divorce proceedings with with Ramona Martin. UCG's own Gary Antion is reported to have to admitted he knew the incest claim was true. Antion retired in 2015 after serving as a member of the UCG Council of Elders, as a church pastor and a teacher at UCG's Ambassador Bible Center, among other positions.

As recently as November 2014, UCG still featured this HWA-apologist gem of a post: "Be Ready to Give an Answer: Didn't You Follow a False Prophet?" on its web site. After ABD quoted it, the article disappeared from the search results on UCG's site. If you're interested, you can still read the original article by scrolling to page 18 of this PDF copy of the November 2005 United News. The article makes the truth is clear: Until only a year ago, UCG preferred to cast mild aspersions on the Apostle Peter, The Apostle Paul, and even Jesus Himself for fostering a sense of urgency, rather than admit the man who started their religious movement set prophetic dates that failed. Is it likely that decades of devotion have disappeared in the past 14 months?

Armstrong's failed predictions often centered around end-time Bible prophecy. Whether he was a true believer in his doomsday predictions or simply trying to scare people into joining or staying in his "church" is a point of debate. But UCG's Beyond Today magazine clearly continues HWA's tradition. In the first issue alone, we see articles about Babylon and the breakdown of today's society; the Bible's prophetic puzzle; rumors of war in the Middle East; Terrorism; Muslim forays into Europe; attacks on American police officers; speculation about living in the time of the end; and a plug for UCG's Booklet about the United States in Prophecy, which propagates HWA's scientifically-debunked theory about the "lost" 10 tribes of Israel.  There's no doubt Jesus told His followers to watch the signs of the times. But is this a 40-page Christian magazine that is also watching the times, or a 40-page prophecy magazine sprinkled with a few biblical nuggets?

Prophetic bent aside, UCG leaders seem to understand they must distance themselves from HWA if the group is to have any kind of shelf life, as we explained in 2014. But the Bible doesn't tell us simply to distance ourselves from false prophets, or parse the writings of sex offenders for their good points. Scripture makes it clear that we must carefully consider the conduct of our leaders:

(Deuteronomy 18:20-22) But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, "How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?" when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him." Regardless of whether a man officially calls himself a prophet, if he makes predictions in God's name, as Herbert Armstrong did countless times, and they do not come to pass when he says they will, then he is a false prophet.

(Matthew 7:15-20) Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them." Was the fruit of HWA's personal lifestyle positive or negative? Was he known for imitating Christ and displaying the fruits of the spirit, or for his famous temper, outrageous lifestyle, and for occasionally comparing members of his church to human waste? What is the fruit of the religious movement he started? Joy, peace and patience or fractious squabbling? By their fruits you will know them.

(1 Corinthians 5:1-2, NIV, section titled "Dealing with a Case of Incest") It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father's wife. And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? This speaks for itself, assuming the allegation is true.

(Hebrews 13:7) Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. What was the outcome of HWA's conduct? What is the outcome of today's Church of God leaders? Consider the conduct of your leaders. If you like the fruit of their lives and their faith, follow in their footsteps. If not, perhaps you should consider why you do not.

Bottom line -  if "Beyond Today" convicts someone that it's morally wrong to have an affair and keeps him from cheating on his spouse, we applaud that. If it encourages someone to turn to God for help with failing finances or a troubling medical prognosis, that's great. Beyond Today's well-meaning proof-texts are still based in scripture, so it's certainly possible. And if you're committed to attending an Armstrongist group, then UCG is probably one of your better choices. Usually, it allows you more personal freedom than the other WCG-descended groups. As well as a much better chance that your minister will "allow" you to maintain somewhat normal relationships with family and friends outside the organization. (If you're into more ministerial control of your life, perhaps you would prefer some of UCG's sister splinters, like the Philadelphia Church of God (also see this on the PCG) or the Living Church of God).  Newer UCG leaders don't seem to be allergic to the words "Jesus" and "grace," which are huge steps of departure from the Worldwide Church of God. We pray that they properly understand both one day.

In the end, "Beyond Today" and all other COG media efforts can't help but mix New Covenant wine with Sinai Covenant wineskins. It will lead sincere people seeking to obey God and live a righteous lifestyle into a performance trap mentality that robs them of the peace, joy and abundant life Jesus came to offer them. Beyond Today is not a new, cutting-edge Christian magazine. It is repackaged material from Armstrongist apologists who are trying to stir up the ashes of a religious movement founded by a false apostle/prophet - one who slandered mainstream Christianity as immoral while he is alleged to have forced an incestuous relationship on his own daughter for more than 10 years, if court records and one of UCG's own long-time, upper-eschelon leaders can be trusted. Make no mistake. Beyond Today, like its publisher, the United Church of God, is Armstrongist at its core.

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