Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Gardening with God, or Growing Spiritual Fruit

Winter is officially over, and I'm getting ready for one of my favorite spring traditions. Late at night, after the kids are asleep, I like to grab a lawn chair and park it underneath one of the fruit trees in my yard. If I'm really quiet, I can hear the sound of the branches grunting as they push out new fruit.

Ok, not really. I'm just having a little fun. Fruit development is a natural process that happens when a branch is attached to a plant, not something any old branch can work up on its own. I know you thought I was nuts the moment I wrote about branches straining to pop out fruit. But do you miss that point in the many Biblical passages that discuss spiritual fruit?

I know, few people think they fall into that category. But at this time of year, that message is easy to miss in the Churches of God. I know I did, for years. We work ourselves into such a frenzy scrubbing and vacuuming and examining and analyzing that we can lose sight of the bigger picture. And no, I don't mean overdoing the physical preparation at the expense of the spiritual. I mean the fact that God, not man, plays the lead role in removing sin and producing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

First, let me give credit where credit is due. The COGs do focus on eliminating sin to a greater extent than some liberal mainstream Christian denominations. Abstention from sin is a good thing - it's a biblical command (though we at As Bereans Did might disagree with the COGs on what is commanded of Christians and what qualifies as sin).

However, the COG focus is likely the result of their collective misunderstandings about salvation, not necessarily moral or doctrinal superiority. Herbert W Armstrong, who founded the modern-day COG movement, taught that a Christian's rate of spiritual growth factored into whether he would receive eternal life.

"And unless we do continue to grow in spiritual character development, more and more like God, we become like the unborn babe that miscarries - or like an abortion!" (Herbert W Armstrong, Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p. 45). 

Don't get me wrong, striving against sin is necessary. It's commanded. We should be actively, aggressively pursuing holiness in our lives. But there are two problems with the salvation theory that HWA taught. First of all, it causes us to live in fear. I'm not talking about a healthy fear - or respect - for God, but fear that any slip, any personal shortcoming, any sin we have yet to overcome will land us in the Lake of Fire.

The second, which I want to address today, is that HWA's model puts man in the driver's seat of a process of which we are not even qualified to be co-pilots. I know that different COG splinters emphasize man's responsibility toward rooting out his own sin and transforming himself to varying degrees. Still, nearly all depict the Holy Spirit as a power tool man wields to clean up his own sin, rather than God Himself changing us from the inside out. The problem is, the Bible describes us as instruments in God's hands, not vice versa. HWA's teaching simultaneously demotes God and elevates man to support a burden he cannot bear.

In reality, we are subordinate in the process of sanctification (mainstream Christianity defines "sanctification" as the process of becoming more like Christ. Though we must play an active role, we do not have equal roles. God leads and we follow. Scripture indicates that we have responsibilities, but we are not in charge.

(1 Thessalonians 5:23) "Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." God, not man, is responsible for our complete sanctification. He is responsible for state of righteousness.

(Philippians 2:12-13) "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure."  We have work to do, but at the end of the day, God works His will in our lives will accomplish His purposes.  We will discuss this verse in more detail later on in this post.

(Hebrews 12:7-11) "If you endure chastening, God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of the spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterwards it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it". In this word picture, God is the parent - the one in charge, and we are the child - the one who is being corrected. He corrects us for our own good, and when we yield to this correction, it produces the fruit of righteousness in our lives.

(Hebrews 13:20-21) "Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen." God, not man, will make Christians complete, to do His will. He works in us to make us pleasing to Himself.

(John 15:5) "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me and I in him bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing." As shown in the opening example, we bear fruit through our relationship with Christ. Branches bear fruit when then are nourished by their connection to the tree. They do not push out apples in a vacuum. Likewise, we cannot work up love, joy, peace and the other fruit of the Spirit on our own. It is a fruit of the Spirit dwelling in us.

Once we recognize that God leads us in the process of sanctification, we can truly learn to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14, Galatians 5:16). How does the Holy Spirit lead us? Christian theologian and author Wayne Grudem elaborates.  The Holy Spirit teaches us (John 14:26), renews our desires and our minds (Ephesians 4:17-24). The Holy Spirit can give us specific commands to obey (Acts 8:29; 10:19-20; 11:12; 13:12). Grudem sums it up well when he contrasts these dramatic commands from the Spirit with submission to the Holy Spirit's daily guidance in the life of a Christian.

"But in the vast majority of cases the leading and guiding by the Holy Spirit is not nearly as dramatic as this. Scripture talks rather about a day-to-day guidance by the Holy Spirit - being 'led' by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14, Galatians 5:18), and walking according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4, Galatians 5:16). Now it is possible to understand Paul here to be referring only to obedience to the moral commands of Scripture, but this interpretation seems quite unlikely, especially since the entire context is dealing with emotions and desires which we perceive in a more subjective way, and because Paul here (in Galatians 5:16-26) contrasts being led by the Spirit with following the desires of the flesh or the sinful nature." (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 642). 
With this context in mind, we can now accurately consider our role in sanctification. Because we do have a role, an active one - we must strive to obey God and take steps to increase our sanctification, Grudem says. We must grow in both our passive trust in God to sanctify us and in our active striving for greater obedience and holiness.

"Unfortunately today, this 'passive' role in sanctification, this idea of yielding to God and trusting Him to work in us 'to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13), is sometimes so strongly emphasized that it is the only thing people are told about the path of sanctification. Sometimes the popular phrase 'let go and let God' is given as a summary of how to live the Christian life," Grudem says. "But this is a tragic distortion of the doctrine of sanctification, for it only speaks of one half of the part we must play, and, by itself, will lead Christians to become lazy and neglect the active role that Scripture commands them to play in their own sanctification." (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 754)

Verses like 1 Corinthians 6:8, 1 Corinthians 7:1, 2 Peter 1:5 and many others indicate our role in sanctification is active. Let's visit some of the more compelling examples.

(Colossians 3:8-10) "But now you yourselves are to put of all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him." We have put off the old man and put on Christ, so we should reflect His characteristics, not carnal characteristics like lying, anger, filthy language, etc.

(Hebrews 12:14) "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord." Pursuit indicates vigorous, intentional action.

(1 Thessalonians 4:3-5) For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how  to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God. This is a clear, direct command for Christians to abstain from sexual immorality. It requires active obedience on our part.

(Philippians 2:12-13) Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as much in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Some point to verse 12, saying it indicates we are responsible for maintaining our right standing with God once initially reconciled to Him through Jesus. This interpretation certainly would result in a life of fear and trembling! It is, however, incongruent with many other passages that describe the Christian attitude as at peace and filled with joy. And it glosses over verse 13, which tells us it is God Himself who works us in us to accomplish His will. The words used in verse 12 could easily be translated as "respect," "awe" and "reverence."

The Expositor's Bible Commentary offers helpful context for this verse - Paul is not rebuking the Philippians, whom this passage indicates have a track record of obedience. He is exhorting them to pursue their Christian progress without undue dependence on his presence. Earlier in the book (Philippians 1:27) he also encourages them to be as diligent in his absence as they were when he was present.

"The Philippians had always obeyed the commands of God implicit in the gospel. This response had occurred first when Paul originally evangelized them, and had been witnessed by him on all of his subsequent visits. But there must be just as careful attention given this matter while Paul was away and especially if his circumstances should prevent a return, for they owed their obedience not merely to him but to their Lord. " (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Exposition of Philippians). 

And just what did Paul mean by "working out your own salvation?

"Hence, working out salvation does not mean "working for" salvation, but making salvation operational. Justification must be followed by the experiential aspects of sanctification, by which the new life in Christ is consciously appropriated and demonstrated. The emphasis on 'your' salvation ('your own,' KJV) may reflect the circumstance that Paul wished to visit Philippi to advance them spiritually. In the event that he could not, they must not depend on him but must work out their spiritual progress, because the same Lord who would work through Paul also worked in them." (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Exposition of Philippians).

"'With fear and trembling' is no contradiction of the joyful spirit permeating this letter. Christian joy is the experience of every believer in God's will, but holy fear of God that trembles at the thought of sin is also the attitude of the careful Christian." (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Exposition of Philippians)

Hopefully you see that not all Christian denominations are shallow social clubs that tell followers they can live any way they want after they are "saved, contrary to the picture the COGs paint of anything outside of Armstrongism. Christian should exhibit fruit and works, but as the evidence that a believer has salvation, not the thing that brings him salvation, or maintains his "saved" status.

The Days of Unleavened Bread are the very picture of working for salvation. In fact, that was likely the lesson that God had in mind for Israel when He instituted the festival. Cleaning out leavening - like eliminating our own sin - is an impossible task. That is how the Days of Unleavened Bread were a shadow that pointed to Jesus (Colossians 2:16-17). But do the COGs move beyond the tutelage that Sinai provided (Galatians 3:24) and embrace the substance of the freedom available in Christ?

No, they continue to live in the shadows, heavily focusing on ritual and human effort. Paul understood that the brethren at Corinth were already unleavened (1 Corinthians 5:6); how is it that we miss this detail today? (For more context on what Paul was discussing in 1 Corinthians 5, please read Were gentiles in Corinth observing the Feast of Unleavened bread?)

Instead, they insist you must perform an impossible physical ritual, which symbolizes an even more impossible spiritual activity. If you don't do both, to an unspecified percentage of completion, your salvation is in danger. How much is enough? Well, of course God doesn't expect you to be perfect. You just have to try, and bear some fruit. How hard, and how much fruit? How much is enough to be sure? There is only one sure thing - that you will sit dejected at Passover, feeling like you should have done more.

The truth is, you would always need to do more, if your "doing" was what gave you right standing with God, or even maintained it once Jesus' blood covered your past sins, as the COGs teach. You could never do enough. That was the lesson the practices of the Sinai Covenant were intended to teach. And then there's the sizable list of commands Jesus and His apostles gave Christians. Careful self-examination according to that list shouldn't leave us calculating our spiritual batting average. It should humble us to realize there is nothing except the shed blood of Jesus that can save us.

Beloved child of God, do not place a yoke upon yourself that you were never meant to carry.  Jesus has taken your heavy burden. The yoke He offers is easy, and the burden is light.  Quit living in the shadows and step fully into the New Covenant.

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

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