Friday, December 22, 2017

The Best Gift Ever

'Twas the Sabbath before Christmas, and all through the land, COG folks were resting, “The Two Babylons” in hand. 

Their church magazine was laid out, with care, to a page with a man dressed in
red, with white hair.

Honestly, those magazine articles almost kept me from writing this season.  It's not surprising, but it's still frustrating, to go into painstaking detail to challenge Alexander Hislop's fabrications, only to see groups like LCG, COGWA and UCG practically copy-and-paste the same articles we refuted last year. But whatever. It's not the first time, and it won't be the last.

I had almost decided to let Christmas pass without writing. This season is just as overwhelming for mainstream Christians as the spring and fall holy day seasons are for Armstrongists. There are shut-ins to visit, homeless to feed, concerts to attend, cookies to bake and gifts to buy. It's easier for a Martha-type like me just to focus on handing out bread to homeless families than to convince Armstrongists I'm not deviant for doing so.

But then, as I was putting up decorations, I stumbled across an ornament with John 3:16 printed on it. This isn't a super common verse to read in the Churches of God, but my kids' Sunday school teachers
have had them memorizing it before they could even read. You know, at the same age I was memorizing the tribes of Israel in the Worldwide Church of God. I'm not sure I heard this passage until Passover services as an adult. In case you're not familiar with it, verses 16 and 17 go like this:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

That word translated “believe” in verse 16 is the Greek pisteuo, from the root, pistis. It's the word for “faith.” When followed by “in Christ,” it implies knowledge of, assent to and confidence in Him, according to Zodhiates' Complete Word Study of the New Testament. 

We get more insight into this verse when we backtrack to verse 14 and 15, where Jesus compares His work on the cross to the episode with Moses and the bronze serpent in Numbers 21.

“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.”

In Numbers 21, those who looked upon the snake were healed. Not those who dragged themselves to Moses and touched the snake or obeyed enough of Moses' commands. Their own efforts did not factor into their healing. Likewise, our actions do not factor into our salvation.

“The nature of belief is implied in the illustration of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. Belief consists of accepting something, not doing something. The result of belief is that one receives eternal life,” according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary

I have heard this concept mangled so many different ways in the COGs. I've even heard a minister say that “faith IN Christ” is a mistranslation, and should be translated “faith OF Christ” - the same kind He had. In other words, we are not saved by having faith in Jesus. We are saved by achieving the same level of faith He had.

Huh? Jesus was God. Is it even called “faith” at that point? Self-confidence? I don't even know where to go with that idea.

Anyway, back to that pisteuo we were talking about earlier.

I don't care if you don't have confidence that Jesus was born on December 25.  I don't think we're ever going to conclusively settle that one. I don't have total confidence either, although there's decent evidence it's a possibility. At the very least, it's not the pagan slam dunk many would have you believe. Christians didn't pinpoint the December 25 date for the first century or two of Christianity, and we can assume those believers are ok, since Romans 14:5-6 tells us our salvation doesn't depend on celebrating specific days:

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.

I don't care if you believe that Christmas trees are pagan. After doing a good bit of research myself, I am confident that they aren't. Frankly, I think some of the popular theories used to “prove” their pagan origins are pretty ridiculous, and I find it annoying to feel compelled to defend myself on this point. But that's ok, I'll just blame it on the Nazis. That's a popular thing to do these days. And if we put up a tree despite our doubts, it's sin, according to the reasoning in Romans 14:23:

But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.

I don't care if you believe that Christians shouldn't celebrate man-made holidays. But just so we're clear, there's no prohibition on creating them to celebrate miracles. The Jews certainly did it. They established Purim after Esther and Mordecai prevailed against Haman. The Jews created Hanukkah to commemorate the miracle of the oil at the re-dedication of the Temple during the Maccabean revolt. The Bible doesn't condemn these man-made holidays – in fact, it tells us Jesus was at the temple during Hanukkah. I even know several COG families who have started embracing these festivals.

So what DO I care about?

I care whether you are placing your pisteuo, your confidence, in the work of Jesus, or in yourself. Because really that is the only thing that matters.

If you are placing your confidence for salvation in His sacrifice, by faith in the promise of forgiveness through His shed blood alone, then it doesn't matter whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Pentecost. If your confidence is in Him, then you have what you need.

If your confidence for your salvation is in your own actions, then it also doesn't matter whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Pentecost. If your confidence is in yourself, then you'd better make sure your batting average is 100 percent.

Nothing else matters - not twinkling lights, evergreen trees, matzos or shofars. Nothing else gives you right standing with God. Nothing else besides confidence in His promise of forgiveness  - by grace through faith - in the shed blood of Jesus.

Now how's that for a gift? Christmas or not, it's the best one ever.

(Ephesians 2:8) For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift 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


nck said...

I like your take this year!

Instead of denying for the umptieth time that Christmas has Germanic origins or quoting fringe and crazy cog ministers that deviated from official wcg teaching to prove your point you present a fair and balanced argument.

The focus on pisteuo or whatever is what really matters. It mattered for the truly converted armstrongists and it mattered/matters for all truly converted christians.

Most differences between the thousands of christian schisms/sects/movements and philosophies are about emphasis. Over time and because of certain times and events certain tenets got more emphasized over 2000 years.

Some stick to the basics. Others have evolved in complex philosophical systems. Some are all about feeling others about experience. But in the end none can attain eternal life on ones own merit since we all fall short. It is that plain simple.

Those in christianity who understand that principle have no difficulty relating to true people in whatever denomination or whatever faith.
Others who have decided or have been wrongly led into a "closing of the mind", have closed themselves from true human potential. Others unfortunately have been closed off from that potential due to war or personal financial trouble, parental abuse, or a crazy dictator closing of the internet.

I cling to the thoughts of that German prisoner in American POW camp after WWII who found himself lying on the highest bench of layers of bed. He mused that "if one knew the path/route road one could find comfort, even in hell."

For a rich man this is more difficult to comprehend. But nothing is impossible!


Martha said...

Thanks, nck, for your kind words. I'm glad my own words hit the mark.

Don't give me too much credit, though. I still believe what I wrote last year, perhaps moreso with another year to study and ponder. I still don't believe Christmas trees came from paganism. I think it's more than a little silly to claim they came from ancient Roman laurels or 10th century Druid customs when we literally have 15th century documents all but connecting the dots. While I'm not sold that Jesus was born on December 25th for sure, I believe it's a possibility. Many arrived at that date long before Sol Invictus was established, and frankly, with the human historical record being what it is, it's hard NOT to find a date shared by something. I share a birthday with about 5 people I know personally, and it's also a national holiday in a nearby country. It's a silly example, but you get the point. Proximity and causality are not the same thing.

Bottom line, I am reasonably certain about all that stuff - we wouldn't have reversed ourselves, especially in a family with kids, if we weren't. But, as you noticed, I realize that stuff is besides the point. It is not what matters. I needed to do my due diligence before I could tell my children, look, we were most likely wrong here. If it helps someone have an easier walk down the road I've passed, great, that's the point of writing on this blog. But I've said what I have to say about that for now, and I recognize that most people are going to give my rehashed points about as much consideration as I do the "Ho Ho Hoax!" article I've been seeing in various COG publications every year since I learned to drive. And again, it's really not the main point. Would it be nice not to be whispered about behind my back? Sure. Would it be nice to share some family time with my Armstrongist family? Sure. But again, that's not what really matters. (continued)

Martha said...

I could rehash what I already on this post, but I'd rather explain it this way.

I have a friend who grew up in the Eastern Bloc. She started wondering about God when she went to college in the west (not the USA). She had a spiritual experience and believes God told her to go to a specific church in the town near her college and talk to the priest. Was it specifically God telling her this, or, on some unconscious level, did she go to this church because they spoke her native language and she felt more comfortable? Does it really matter? She was seeking God, believes He answered and was obedient. Scripture tells us God answers those who draw near to Him and opens the door when we knock.

Fast forward 10 years. This woman married a military man and came to the USA. Every year since we met, she tries to get her neighbors together to go Christmas caroling. It doesn't matter if she is sick, pregnant, whatever, she is going caroling. She was not allowed to talk about God as a child and loves the freedom to publicly sing about Jesus and share the good news of the gospel. She is secretly irate when neighbor children choose to sing secular songs rather than songs about Jesus. She also still attends an orthodox church where they speak her native language and stick to strict liturgical practices. Does it matter? Scripture tells us that there are believers in other pastures, and that if we are working for the common Goal, and not working against Him, both are His.

Some would say yes. Many of those at the conservative church I attend would say yes. But I know she does not believe her liturgical practices save her. What would they have me do? Tell her that she really should have sought out a Protestant Church back in Europe? Or tell her it was ok to do these things back in Europe, when the orthodox church was the main one around, but try to persuade her to leave her orthodox tradition now that she is in borderline Bible belt America? Who am I to say God isn't at that church, or didn't use it to draw her to Him? To be fair, there are doctrinal differences that I disagree with. But, as you said, many of the other differences are a matter of emphasis. And as we discussed in an earlier comment on another post, God is not saving churches, denominations or sects with different emphases. He is saving individuals.

If this woman and I, as individuals, both understand that we are saved by grace and not by merit, I am content to sit with her and discuss the Bible, apply it to the muddy waters of the parental challenges she and I both face, and sing Christmas carols beside her. And the same seems to go for her attitude toward me. Through her example, the rest of her formerly atheist family have come to faith. Who am I to say she doesn't have sincere faith and it has born good fruit? A couple years ago, she was actually concerned because her elderly grandmother refused to leave her home village even though ISIS was there. My God, if they are Christian enough to be potentially martyred by ISIS, they are Christian enough for me.


nck said...

I am glad we can "meet" on the emphasis thing and enjoyed the story in your posting.

I have met many like those lady. I visited the now destroyed christian aramaic villages in Syria, most of the copts in egypt ( who added another nine martyrs yesterday).

I find many religionist hard to reason with _(you mentioned hard core bible belt) but have also found great perseverance there.

Our discussion would have been harder if I had been a courtier at the court of Charlemaign or a British scolar from Lindisfarne faced with swedish, frankish, yutes, frisian atrocities and faced with the challenge of setting the new rules for a new society.

But hey, these are different times, thousands of years more experience and as you say we grow by the season.

I m sorry if I implied you had changed position.

I was tongue in cheek and like to keep some pressure on you since during skiing and eating I am confronted with Krampus man.

Again I am really sorry that Krampus man made me think of you! (deliberate tongue in cheek)


Martha said...

Wait, so now you're a courtier/scholar and I'm KRAMPUS????

Right. I see where this is going. Good day, sir.

(It's ok, I'm sure there are times my kids would compare me to Krampus, as would probably some of the folks in my borderline Bible-belt church. Perhaps I am an advocate for grace because I know that I need so much of it.)

nck said...

Apparently Krampus in the Alps is also St Nicks companion and helper!
Although Nck has different helpers wherever he goes.

The scolar thing I mentioned since I like those fellars like St Boniface, St Martins, St Maurice, Skt Gallen going into the woods, speaking and acting boldly in the midst of adversity. (although some of them may be considered borderline by modern standards)

As I mentioned.
On occasion I enjoy the company and tenacity of the last jews in Buchara Central Asia or the last Orthodox christians in Arab lands, or the remaining Armenians of Aleppo. Last vestiges of a local cultural patchwork.

I just might have defended the last pagan village too, hidden deep in the woods of Hessen after Charlemaigne beat their swords into plowshares. :-) I do not particularly enjoy news items relating the find of another undiscovered Amazonian tribe, or Ukrainian or Nepali girls preferring jeans over local custom. The odd ones can be instruments of adding spice to it all.


Anonymous said...

I have been following your blog for quite a while now. I check it out on a regular basis to see what new articles you have. The reason I find your work so interesting is that I was once a member of the Worldwide Church of God on the island of Barbados. I left the WCG in 2000 and joined a NAR church. After finding out their schisms I left. I have not joined a church since then but my wife and I engage in pray and Bible study every day. We are careful to let God's word guide us rather than follow wolves in sheep's clothing. I do enjoy your articles and the repudiation of Armstrongism.

xHWA said...

Thank you Anonymous from Barbados.