Thursday, February 18, 2010

Boasting in Weakness

Here is a study of II Corinthians 11:15-29 that I preached on this evening:

Background: The Corinthian church had been infiltrated by false teachers who were challenging both Paul’s personal integrity and his authority as an apostle. While it’s hard to say exactly who his opponents were, they were very likely Jewish Christians who disagreed with some element of Paul’s teaching and who were attempting to sway the church by discrediting Paul in his absence. They had accused him both of stealing the money they had sent for Jerusalem as well as claiming that his word was untrustworthy.

Paul defends himself against these charges, and in the last few chapters of the letter he addresses both the false teachers as well as those who have been led astray by them. Since they apparently are swayed by “outward appearances,” Paul resorts to “boasting,” though clearly this is not his preferred method:

"I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!

What anyone else dares to boast about - I am speaking as a fool - I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and i do not inwardly burn?

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness."

Weakness isn’t exactly a very popular subject – especially here in America. We tend to praise the ones who have overcome some difficulty, who have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps or otherwise made themselves strong. In the Marine Corps, weakness was seen as the enemy – a common slogan at the gym was “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” If you’re watching the Olympics right now, you see young men and women from all over the world who are at the peak of their physical abilities competing to see who is the best. But behind these stories of success and victory, there is often an element of weakness or inability that makes the story more powerful.

Drew Brees is a great example that our pastor shared about a few weeks ago – extensive damage to his shoulder, but he persevered and is now sporting a Super Bowl ring on that hand. At the New Orleans press conference before the big game, Drew was asked about overcoming adversity.

He said, “The injury happened in the last game of the 2005 season, my fifth year in San Diego in which I did not have a contract after that. All of a sudden here I am thrust into free agency two months after a right shoulder dislocation, which I was told by some doctors that I had a 25 percent chance of coming back and ever playing. Only two teams were interested in me in free agency to be the starting quarterback – Miami and New Orleans. That was a defining moment in my life and one that brought me to New Orleans with a sense that this is a calling for me, an opportunity that I have to not only come to a city and be a part of the rebuilding of the organization, city, community and region. This was an opportunity that really doesn’t come along for most people in their lifetime, and yet here it is staring me in the face. So it was much more than football and I felt it was destiny that God put me there for a reason. At times, God is going to put you in a position to wonder why this is happening to me or to us, and yet you know it’s happening for a reason. It’s there to make you stronger and to give the opportunity to accomplish something later on – and here we are.”

So what is weakness?

An inability to do something; a lack of strength; things that are beyond our control or influence.

Why would Paul boast about his weaknesses?

Paul boasts about the things that are out of his control, because it opens the way for him to experience the strength of God’s grace.

How do we boast about our weaknesses?

It means that we learn the lessons that God intends for us throughout our period of weakness and share our stories with others as a means of encouragement and to point them towards God’s strength and sufficiency.

Personal example:

I lost my job with the Guard last October, yet God is providing for us financially. Specifically, in the past week we’ve received:

- $2900 from National Guard selling back leave days that were thought to be lost.

- Over $10,000 in tax refunds.

- $7500 from someone we’ve never met who runs a charitable endowment and heard about our situation from a friend.

Did I do anything to earn this $20,000 gift? Well, maybe the taxes… but the point is that all of this came about at a time when I could do nothing for myself – when it was all we could do just to pay our bills each month and wonder if I would be able to stay in school and graduate this June. I was weak financially, and there were no good prospects on the horizon that indicated any kind of change. So am I boasting now? Well, yes – but it’s not about me. Instead, it’s about pointing to God and showing how He works in the midst of our weakness and inability. And when God makes us strong, He does so in order that we can help those around us who are weak. In our case, we were able to help provide scholarships for our church's Men’s Retreat and Youth Retreat.

So here’s what I want to leave you with, gentle readers:

- Weakness in some area is an opportunity to see God’s strength and faithfulness.

- Weakness causes us to turn to God and renews our faith in Him.

- The blessings and experiences we gain from our weakness enables us to support and encourage others.

Your challenge: Identify at least one area of “weakness” in your life and pray that the Lord will teach you what He wants you to learn so that your faith may be strengthened and it may be added to your testimony.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Thoughts on Forgiveness

I've been having another discussion over on Neptunus Lex, this one dealing with the nature of salvation and forgiveness. This is interesting, as it comes close on the heels of my having recently finished a book by Andrew Farley titled The Naked Gospel which profoundly challenged my thinking on the matter.

I won't go into all the issues the book talks about, but the one that caught my attention was his section called "Cheating on Jesus" that deals with the subject of forgiveness.

The issue at stake here – and it is a major one – is whether or not we are saved by grace, by keeping the law, or by some curious mix of the two. If it is by grace, then we must confront what it means to be truly forgiven by God.

Under the old covenant (Abraham, Noah, Moses - up until Jesus’ death) righteousness was obtained through keeping the Law. If one sinned, the shedding of blood in the form of animal sacrifice was required to bring about atonement, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). This had to be done continually. They believed that being Jewish (God’s chosen people) was what made them part of God’s family, and that keeping the Law was what *kept* them in His family. If you didn’t keep the law, you were outside the faith.

With Jesus’ death, his shed blood provided the perfect sacrifice for all of humanity – there was now a means by which I could be made right with God, if only I avail myself of the grace (gratia) that He has freely (gratis) provided. This offering on our behalf was a “once for all” proposition – Hebrews 9:25-26 tells us, “Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” A few verses later we are told that “Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those that eagerly await him.

The message of the cross is that my past, present and future sins have already been forgiven when I put my faith in Christ. That’s it. There’s no more forgiveness that’s going to be poured out – the full measure was already given 2000+ years ago. Do you still ask God to forgive you when you fall short or fail from time to time? If so, why? What good does your asking do when the act has already been done? It’s like me asking my wife to marry me each evening before we go to bed – my continual asking doesn’t change our marital status one whit. You’re either forgiven – and live in a continual state of forgiveness as a believer – or you’re not. No middle ground that I can see. Attempting to add some works-based efforts on our part only serves to return us to bondage under the law.

So let me ask you this: If you're a Christian, and you commit a sin, what is your standing before God? If you die before you confess that sin, where do you go? I don't believe that my sin (as a believer) separates me from God or breaks my fellowship with Him. If the Spirit lives in me - if I am supernaturally fused with him in my soul - how can I be separated from what is now part of myself? This does not mean that I am free to sin - Paul makes that quite clear several times - but the struggle between my godly nature and my flesh has no bearing on my salvation.

According to Dr. Doug Moo, “genuine faith…always and inevitably produces evidence of its existence in a life of righteous living.” This is what James is talking about when he writes of the necessity of works as a natural result of one’s faith. Yet even though this is (or should be) the natural process of regeneration that follows true conversion, it is not in itself a necessity for salvation. Recall the criminal who was crucified on the cross next to Jesus – where were his “good works?” He had faith, and that was enough. To add works as a requirement for salvation is to return to the Law that governed the Israelites under Moses – and we have been set free from that law through the shed blood of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I don’t understand why people ask for forgiveness. I do; I did it for years. Confession is one thing; in confessing, we essentially agree with God that we are sinners and that we still do wrong things. But usually this is followed by asking for forgiveness, which makes sense in human relationships where a rift has been torn, fellowship has been broken, and forgiveness is necessary to repair/restore the relationship.

With regards to us and God, I don’t believe that last step is necessary, at least from His point of view. Oh, we may still do it, and I don’t think it bothers him that we do – but I think it would be a mistake to think that our asking for forgiveness suddenly brings down this rain of grace, as though God were holding it back until we asked for it.

The danger is that over time, we get into this pattern of confession/asking for forgiveness, and think that it’s the only way that we can get our slate “wiped clean” with God. We take what may be an understandable (yet wholly unnecessary) practice and elevate it to a necessity – to the point where we feel as though we’re not forgiven unless we’ve asked God for forgiveness. Now that quaint little habit begins growing into a millstone around our necks, and we preach to others that they should keep “short accounts” with God – as though He’s up there tracking our every sin and tallying it up on a celestial scorecard.

What I’m proposing isn’t really all that radical – it’s what Paul & the writer of Hebrews preached nearly two millenia ago:

Salvation by faith.

Forgiveness from God.

Freedom in Christ.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” -Ephesians 2:8-9