Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Scrubbing from the Wrong Side

Do you hate cleaning windows as much as I do? It's got to be one of the top five worst household chores ever. You usually start off with glass cleaner and a paper towel, only to discover you're leaving tiny shreds of paper all over the pane. Then you try a rag, and the results are a little better. Still, when you take a step back, you still see random streaks. And a big smudge right in the middle. You spray and scrub several more times. No good. Somehow, this magical smudge is impervious to any cleaning product ever formulated.

Finally it dawns on you. The smudge is on the other side of the window. You've been cleaning the wrong side all along. Rolling your eyes, you head outside.

This technique works fine if we're talking about windows. But what if we're talking about cleaning something in a place where you can't just step to the other side?

Many of you in the Churches of God are in the midst of your annual Passover preparation. You'll take stock of your spiritual condition since the last Passover. You'll determine how much progress you're making in overcoming sin. How is that going for you? Are you making good progress? How much sin have you cleared out of your life in the past year?

Celebrating the Days of Unleavened Bread is a great framework to explore the problem of sin in our lives. Let's consider the teachings of Herbert W Armstrong on this matter. (Herbert Armstrong founded the Worldwide Church of God, which has since splintered into many smaller groups, including the Living Church of God; United Church of God; Philadelphia Church of God; Church of God, a Worldwide Association; Church of God, an International Community and many others. Most of these groups hold fast to Armstrong's teachings on sin and salvation).

HWA taught that the problem of human sin was primarily external, not internal. He taught that Satan broadcasts his negative attitudes through the air, much like radio signals, and humans absorb them.
"We humans start out at birth all right" (Herbert W Armstrong, The Incredible Human Potential, p. 162) but then "acquire" our evil nature from Satan's broadcasts (The Incredible Human Potential, p. 154).
"The spirit in  every human being is automatically tuned in on Satan's wavelength. You don't hear anything because he does not broadcast in words - nor in sounds, whether music or otherwise. He broadcasts in ATTITUDES. He broadcasts in attitudes of SELF-centeredness, lust, greed, vanity, jealousy, envy, resentment, competition, strife, bitterness and hate." (The Incredible Human Potential, p. 151)
"Utilizing this same principle, Satan, prince of the power of the air, stirs the spirits of humans, injecting into them attitudes, moods and impulses of selfishness, vanity, lust, and greed, attitudes of resentment against authority, of jealousy and envy, of competition and strife, of resentment and bitterness, of violence, murder and war. People do not recognize the source of these attitudes, feelings, motives and impulses." (The Incredible Human Potential, p. 152)
Many of today's COGs carry this teaching forward. In its booklet "Transforming Your Life," the United Church of God explains that children are born with a neutral nature - tabula rasa - but are quickly influenced by Satan and the world. The theory of tabula rasa (Latin for "blank slate") is believed to have originated with Aristotle, and hypothesizes that humans are born morally neutral and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception. If one of the most liberal WCG splinters holds onto Armstrong's theory - which originated in Greek philosophy, not the Bible - it's a good bet that splinters with more HWA hardliners do, too.

We here at As Bereans Did agree that Satan does influence humanity, individually and collectively. The Bible tells us so. But scripture also clearly states that man's sin problem is internal, not simply externally influenced.

Psalm 51:5 - Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.
The context here shows David isn't writing here about the son he conceived with Bathsheba, but of himself. It would appear the psalmist does not believe he was morally neutral at birth.

Job 14:4 - Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one!
Here, Job laments that impure man (or technically, woman) cannot give birth to something pure. The woman produces offspring of a similar nature, and Job does not describe that nature positively.

Psalm 58:3 - The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.
David describes his enemies as liars who were separated from God  before birth. Of course, Old Testament discussion is usually framed with Israel as righteous and her oppressors as wicked. Other passages, in both the Old and New Testaments, describe both Israel and gentiles as wicked, and give us a better picture of man's true condition.

Jeremiah 17:9 - The heart is heart is desperately wicked, who can know it?
Our hearts are more than just tuned in to the wrong channel. There is a deeper problem.

It might seem like we're nitpicking here. But the question of sin being internal rather than external is highly relevant, especially this time of year. Because if our hearts are simply tuned to the wrong radio station, over time, we can learn to change the channel. If we are blank slates in which Satan has drawn, then we can pull our Holy Spirit eraser out of our desk and wipe away the filth. But these strategies won't work if the problem is our heart itself.

Christians are obviously commanded to turn from sin and model their behavior after Christ. The Bible uses strong, active words like "strive" and "resist" and "fight" to describe our Christian responsibility. It's easy for us to lose sight of the fact that we are not in full control of this process, or to believe that our salvation is dependent upon how well we perform these responsibilities. This was a connection HWA drilled into the mind of his followers.
"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). 
The question is, grow to what extent? To what degree, what percentage of holy, righteous character must we grow in order to avoid being aborted, or thrown in the Lake of Fire? Such questions are unanswered because they unanswerable, and leave many COG members living their lives in fear. The fear of "what if?"

This is why confusing steps in the redemption process is so damaging, according to theologian and pastor John Piper. Our only hope for progress in gradually becoming like Christ is that we already have right standing with God by faith, Piper explains in his book Counted Righteous in Christ. This right standing establishes the very relationship in which we find the help and power to make progress. Without this assurance, the battle is uncertain and engaged in fear, not confidence. The fallout that results from this kind of spiritual warfare is not pretty.
"If the battle of sanctification is made part of our justification, as the newer challenge tends to make it, a great part of the foundation for triumphant warfare against sin is removed, and we are made to fight a battle that has already been fought for us and that we cannot win." (John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, p. 50).
We can try to scrub all the dirt off the window, figuratively speaking, as long as we like. We can brush the dirt away all we like. We can try really hard, then try really hard some more, then keep trying hard. We can try to wield the Holy Spirit as a sponge. We may get some of the spots off. But we can't get it all. We are washing the window from the wrong side.

The Days of Unleavened Bread demonstrated this harsh reality to Israel. They might not have had all the nooks and crannies in their houses and leavened convenience foods, but still, did you ever notice Israel never seemed to be concerned with how their dough would become leavened once again? They may have been symbolically clean for a week, but the leavening always came back. Likewise, we can scrub the leavening out of every corner of our home, but our hearts will keep spewing crumbs until the day we die.

This is why the Days of Unleavened Bread were a shadow pointing Israel to Christ and permanent deliverance from sin He alone provided. But instead of learning that lesson, the COGs continue to embrace the shadow, focusing on a physical ritual we can't carry out completely, symbolizing a spiritual  action that we are even less capable of completing. Yet the COGs teach we must pursue both impossible tasks to an unspecified threshhold of completion, or else our salvation is in jeopardy. What's wrong with this picture?

There is hope. Isaiah 53, which prophesies the sacrifice of the suffering servant, tells us that we can be healed through Jesus' stripes. This does not refer to physical healing, but of the healing of our hearts available through the shed blood of Jesus. Of the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Of the justification, or right standing we can obtain through His sacrifice. Once we have right standing with God, secure in His salvation and love, then we can move on to the God-led work of sanctification, or becoming more and more like Christ.

Now that your Passover examination is almost done, tell me, do you only have a few fingerprints on the inside of your windows? Or are there dark, stubborn smudges that only a miracle could remove?  Does your heart need some fine-tuning, or are you in need of major surgery? Thankfully, we have a great Physician, a spiritual cardiologist, who is able to address our heart problems from the inside, the only place that will make an eternal difference.

(Mark 2:16-17, New Living Translation) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw Him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, "Why does He eat with such scum?" When Jesus heard this, he told them, "Healthy people don't need a doctor - sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous but those who know they are sinners."

Do you think you are righteous, in need of repentance for a few inner thoughts and choice words? Or has your Passover examination brought to mind deep stains of pride, lust or envy? Quit trying to wipe out those stains by yourself. Quit placing your faith in your own efforts. Step into the New Covenant and place your full faith for salvation in Jesus' completed work on the cross. Then, and only then, can He begin the real change, from the right side of your heart.

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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