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Collective decision-making

Camel & horse 1 400pxThey say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee! Does this mean that groups make poor decisions because they incorporate too many conflicting opinions?

Christian churches and ministries are often led by leadership teams. But how should such teams make decisions, particularly when not all members agree? In this blogpost, we will use the example of a group of elders leading a church, but the principles also apply to other groups of Christians. We will see that the best approach to collective decision-making is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority.

The Bible teaches that a Christian church should be governed by a group of elders. This is plural leadership by a team that makes decisions for the congregation. In this article we look at some of the biblical principles for making decisions at elders’ meetings. These are collective, corporate decisions; not those made by an individual. It is when the elders seek the best collective decision as to what is Christ’s will for the congregation.

Unity

It is important to make every effort to maintain peace and unity among Christians (Rom. 14:19; Eph. 4:3). After all, Jesus died to bring together all of God’s scattered people and make them one (Jn. 11:51-52). Unity among believers was so important to Jesus that it was the subject of His prayer for them during the final hours of His life on earth: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn. 17:20-23NIV).

The Greek word for “one” (hen, Strongs #1520) appears four times in these verses, the last occasion being translated as “complete unity.” Here “one” is a metaphor for union, concord, and unity and the example to follow is the unity that exists between God the Father and God the Son. The same word was used when Christ said “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30).

The reason for this unity is repeated in the above verses: so the people of this world will know that Christ was sent by God. Another reason is so they may know something of God’s great love for humanity. This means that Christ tied His reputation and the credibility of His message to how well His followers display unity and oneness.

Paul also gave reasons for harmony and unity amongst Christians, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:1-4).

Evidently there was a lack of unity amongst the elders at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). There were factions within this church. Paul said that there shouldn’t be such divisions or quarrels within a leadership team.

But unity doesn’t mean uniformity; that every elder will have the same opinion. If this was the case, there would be no need for the plurality of elders. Also, plural leadership harnesses the collective experience and wisdom of a group, which is not present in a single person.

Furthermore, unity doesn’t mean that one person makes the decisions and the others all agree. This is more like a dictatorship where one person insists on getting their own way (3 Jn. 9-10). Being unified on an issue means that after debate, discussion and prayer, all the elders can support a certain choice as the best collective decision for the church.

Unity in a leadership team mainly depends on the character of the team members. For example, the Bible gives the godly qualifications required for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-6; Tit. 1:6-9). In decision-making it’s important that elders be sensible, just, trustworthy, and self-controlled and not quarrelsome or quick tempered or overbearing.

Status quo

Did you know that not making a decision is a decision? In this case, the situation remains the same as it is at present. So, we are choosing to remain the same instead of changing in some way. Such a bias in favour of the status quo can be harmful for a church which is facing ever-changing challenges.

Consensus

According to the dictionary, consensus means general or widespread agreement. The two main components of decision-making are the process used to form a proposal and the method used to decide whether to implement it or not. The word “consensus” has been used in both of these contexts.

The process
A consensus-oriented process is one in which people work together to reach as much agreement as possible. It is a collaborative and inclusive process in which all the elders should have the opportunity to contribute to drafting the proposal. As extra time can lead to a better proposal, be willing to defer finalizing the proposal to the next elders’ meeting.

The decision
A person can give their consent to a proposal that isn’t their first choice.  Possible decision-making options include:
– Unanimous agreement (this is the most difficult to achieve)
– Unanimous consent (where the proposal isn’t necessarily their first choice)
– Unanimous agreement minus one or two votes
– Unanimous consent minus one or two votes
– Super majority such as 90%, 80%, 75%, or two-thirds.
– Simple majority. At least 51%.

Three decision-making methods

Some examples of decision-making in the early church are given in the Appendix. The three main methods for making decisions in elders’ meetings are unanimity, majority, and consensus.

Unanimity

In this case, decisions are based on unanimous agreement by all persons. This is the ideal that elders should be working towards. However, this method allows one person to shut down the decision-making process. Not taking an action is a decision. In this case, the decision would be made by one person, and not a plural group. This gives one person too much power. The choice to require unanimous agreement on all decisions allows any individual elder to stop the decision-making process in the elders’ group. So this approach can lead to government by the minority.

Majority

In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by a majority of elders. It is government by the majority, not the minority. Although there is biblical precedence for this approach (2 Cor. 5:6), it can also lack unity. For example, if a decision is based on a slim majority, then there is a lack of unity amongst the elders. How can the elders expect the congregation to follow such a decision? A proposal that cannot gain the agreement of all or nearly all the elders is not worthy of the elders’ support. So a super majority is better than a slim majority.

Consensus

In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all (unanimity) or most of the elders. Consequently, it avoids the short-comings of the other two methods for making decisions. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support (say at least two-thirds). So it is similar to a super majority where each person agrees to support the decision, even though it may not be their first choice. Note that disagreement by a minority does not have to mean disunity.

Deciding

Today the complete Word of God gives us a general outline of God’s will. When we need specific guidance in matters not covered in the Word, we can pray and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The elements of decision making at an elders’ meeting include:
– Pray for corporate wisdom. If there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, then there is a need for more prayer.
– Gather and assess information. Good leaders listen to the concerns of all the people involved. Don’t make a decision before you have all the facts (Prov. 18:13, 17). After an allegation was made the Israelites were advised; “you must investigate it thoroughly” (Dt. 13:14). As there are usually at least two sides to every story, it is important to talk to all the parties involved (Josh. 22:13-14; 31-34; Mt. 18:15-17).
– Apply appropriate Biblical principles.
– Discuss options. “After much discussion”, the early church at Jerusalem made a decision on the law of Moses (Acts 15:7, 25).
– Agree on a time frame for the decision. If we put it off indefinitely, then we accept the status quo. But if there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, if possible, the decision could be delayed to the next elders meeting. Similarly for the case where a decision is a greater risk of going against Christ’s will for the congregation than the risk of delay. So patience is required for good decision-making.
– Seek consensus where team members either fully agree or have no serious objections. But if this is not achieved, to do nothing may be making a decision anyhow (status quo). And it seems better to favor the majority and not the minority, provided this doesn’t threaten unity amongst the elders.

Don’t let fear cripple your decision making. Fear of conflict, fear of what others may think and fear of failure must be overcome if we are to make good decisions.

Consensus is preferred because majority rule is better than minority rule and super majority rule is better than simple majority rule. Whereas a requirement for a unanimous agreement gives every member a veto, which is individual decision-making and not collective decision-making.

Conclusion

Let’s use the principles discussed above to make good decisions in our Christian leadership teams. The best approach is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority. For example, in elders’ meetings it is best to seek consensus when making decisions. In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all or most of the elders. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support. This avoids the shortcomings of using the unanimous or majority approaches to decision making.

Appendix – Decision-making in the early church

Some examples of decisions made in the early church are given below.

Matthias chosen to replace Judas

After the resurrection of Jesus and the death of Judas Iscariot, it was necessary to appoint another apostle to be a witness Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:15-26). The job description for this person would require that they knew what Christ taught so they could teach others. And they must be able to work together with the other apostles to lead the church in Jerusalem. Apparently several men met this requirement, so a decision had to be made as to which one would become the 12th apostle. Then the Bible says; “So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:23-26NIV).

They followed a three step process:
– The apostles nominated two men
– The apostles prayed for the Lord’s will to be revealed
– They cast lots
As this is the Bible’s last mention of casting lots, it’s not prescriptive for the church. It was a method used under the Mosaic covenant, but not under the new covenant.

The casting of lots for decision-making was a custom widely practiced in the ancient Near East. For example, lots were used in Persia in the 5th century BC (Est. 3:7). It seems as though marked pebbles or sticks were drawn from a receptacle into which they had been cast. This use of stones or sticks of wood to make decisions occurred often in Old Testament times (Ex. 28:30; Num. 26:55-56; 27:21; 33:54; 1 Sam. 10:20-21; 1 Chron. 26:13-16; Neh. 11:1; Ps. 22:18; Prov. 16:33; 18:18; Ezek. 21:21; Jon. 1:7). For example, the Urim and the Thummim were used to determine the will of God. Lots were used to reveal God’s selection of someone or something out of several possibilities in cases where a clear choice was not otherwise evident (Prov. 16:33). They provided a just and peaceful settlement of matters between people who might otherwise resort to force.

Deacons chosen at Jerusalem

When a practical need arose in the church at Jerusalem, the apostles said, “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4). So the congregation choose seven men who were endorsed by the apostles. But no details are given on the method used for this decision.

Barnabas and Saul chosen for missionary work

Paul’s first missionary journey began from Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:1-3). This decision was made when the elders of the church (and maybe the congregation) were engaged in a time of prayer and fasting. They may have been praying about the evangelization of the world. As they prayed the Holy Spirit told them set apart Barnabas and Saul for this missionary work. We are not told how this message came, but it may have been revealed to one of the men who were prophets (Simeon, Lucius, or Manaen). The elders (and congregation) must have agreed as “they placed their hands on them and sent them off”. Likewise, no details are given on the decision-making process used.

Do Gentile believers need to be circumcised?

At the church in Jerusalem, the leadership team (apostles and elders) met in about AD 48 to consider whether to impose circumcision on Gentile believers (Acts 15:1-35). There was “much discussion” on this topic. Peter, Barnabas and Paul spoke. James then made a recommendation that was accepted by the apostles, elders and the whole church. They “all agreed” to send Judas and Silas to Antioch with a letter about their decision (Acts 15:22, 25). The ESV, HCSB and NET call it “unanimous” (the Greek means, having come to one mind”). It seemed to be a consensus agreement (a general agreement) which everyone was willing to accept. This doesn’t mean that everyone fully agreed (unanimity) as evidenced by the ongoing Judaizers objections. This is a good outcome of decision making, but it isn’t always possible. For example:
– When Paul and Barnabas disagreed with regard to John Mark, they went separate ways (Acts 16:36-41). This shows that agreement will not always be reached. But in this case a peaceful outcome was achieved.
– Paul said that it was wrong for a church to be divided over leaders like in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). Instead there should be unity.

Dealing with an offender at Corinth

Paul wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians to address problems at the church in Corinth. One of the problems was that the church continued to accept a member who was in an incestuous relationship (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Paul rebuked them for not doing anything about it, and urged them to take action. He told them to expel the man from the church so that he would repent of this ongoing behaviour.

When Paul wrote a follow-up letter, it was evident that the church had obeyed Paul’s instruction to expel the offender (2 Cor. 2:5-8; 7:12). (Note that this passage may refer to someone else who had caused trouble in the church; we can’t be certain. Another possibility is that the offence in 2 Corinthians was a personal attack by the unrepentant incestuous man against Paul and his authority to exercise discipline in the church. And after Paul rebuked them again, the church finally disciplined the offender). Now as the offender had shown genuine sorrow and repentance for his sin, the punishment should be discontinued and he should be restored to fellowship in the local church. In this context, Paul writes,
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient” (v. 6NIV).
“For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough” (ESV)
“The punishment inflicted by the majority is sufficient for that person” (HCSB)
“This punishment on such an individual by the majority is enough for him” (NET).

The Greek word pleionon (Strongs #4119) means greater in quantity or quality (Thayer Greek Lexion). The short definition is “more” or “greater”. In 2 Cor. 2:6 it is translated as “majority”, because it means greater in quantity. Paul also uses this Greek word in the same sense in 4:15 (where it means “more and more”) and 9:2 (where is means “most”). This Greek word also occurs in 1 Cor. 9:19 (many); 10:5 (most); 15:6 (most).

The decision by the church to punish the offender had not been unanimous, as it was carried out by the “majority” of the church, not “all” the church. Some may have declined to take part in it because they refused to acknowledge Paul’s authority. But Paul felt that the agreement of the majority had been sufficient to attain the desired objective. Those who had shown disrespect for the apostle must have been the minority.

This suggests that in instances where unanimity isn’t achieved, then it should be majority rule and not minority rule. You may say that in the case of the Israelite spies of Canaan, the majority (10 out of 12) made a bad decision. However, this was because only two of the 12 spies were faithful to the Lord (See the importance of the godly character of team members mentioned above under “Unity”).

Reference Swartley RH (2005) “Eldership in action. Through biblical governance of the church”. Emmaus College Press.

Written, April 2017

Also see: New Testament shepherds

What God does

God busy 2There’s a country music song by Brooks and Dunn titled, “God must be busy”. It mentions fighting in the Middle East, a single mum who lost her job, people dying and missing in a tornado, the abduction of a young girl, a drought, elderly people who can’t afford their medication, and violent street gangs. The writer feels as small as a speck of sand and that God’s got better things to do than to help them. They think that God hasn’t answered their prayer because “God must too be busy to help me”. This is an example of those who say they don’t want to bother God about their problems because He’s too busy running the universe.

In a class I’ve been attending at Bible College we’ve been looking at what the Bible says about God. This includes God’s attributes (His character) and God’s actions. His attributes can be summarized as: God is great and God is good. An example of His greatness is His power and an example of His goodness is His love. Of course God is much greater than we can imagine and more virtuous than we can imagine.

But what does God do? In this blogpost we are looking at what God does. His actions. And we will see that in the past God has planned and created, but now He sustains and governs His creation.

God plans

Like an architect designs a building, and an engineer designs a car, and a graphic artist designs an animated movie and a sculptor designs a pot, God has planned everything that will happen (Rom. 9:20-23). Like the plan begins in the mind of the architect, the engineer, the graphic designer, and the sculptor; the plan also begins in the “mind” of God. He decides. It’s His will. When we say “God’s will”, we mean “God’s plan”.

We don’t know much about God’s plan. Only what’s revealed in the Bible. We see what happens, not why it happens.

First, God’s plan included creation. It was God’s idea. God didn’t have to create, but He did.

Second, God’s plan includes the history of nations and individuals. For example:
– God used Assyria to punish ungodly nations, “Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone” (Isa. 37:26NIV). It says that God planned it long ago. God also determined the beginning, the end and the area occupied by nations (Acts 17:26).
– David says that our life span and its events have been already determined by God, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:16).

Third, God’s plan included salvation (Eph. 1:11). God gave a promise to Abraham, and through him to humanity. This promise-plan is fulfilled in the history of Israel, in Jesus Christ as the source of salvation, in the church, and in the age to come (Kaiser, 2008). God wanted to have people become like Himself, so He could enjoy their fellowship (Rom. 8:29; 1 Jn. 3:2). Jesus was sent on a mission at a time that was determined beforehand (Gal .4:5-5). The death of Jesus was part of “God’s deliberate plan” (Acts 2:23). God decided beforehand what happened (Acts 4:28).

God’s plan is good; it has good consequences. And the ultimate purpose of God’s plan is His glory (Eph. 1:12, 14; Rev. 4:11; 5:13).

When did God do this planning? The Bible says that it was “before the beginning of time” and “before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pt. 1:20). So it was made before anything was created. When the triune God was all that existed. In eternity past.

But God’s work is more than planning; He also creates.

God creates

God brought everything that exists into being without the use of pre-existing materials. God created time, the physical world of matter, forces and energy out of nothing. He also made the spiritual world of angels. God created things from what He created earlier. For example, He made animals, birds and Adam from dust and Eve from Adam (Gen. 2:7, 19, 21). There was nothing evil within God’s original creation (Gen. 1:31). And through the laws of genetics, variations can be created within the various types of creatures that God created. This limited variability helps creatures survive changes in their environment.

Creation is emphasised at the beginning of the books of Genesis, John and Hebrews. The Bible says that God created the world for His glory (Ps. 19:1; Isa. 6:3; 43:7; Rom. 1:20-21). In heaven, God the Father is praised, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will (God’s plan) they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11).

An architect is greater than a building, and an engineer is greater than a car, and a graphic artist is greater than an animated movie and a sculptor is greater than a pot. As a creator is greater than their creation, God is greater than anything in creation. He alone is to be worshipped.

But God’s work is more than planning and creating; He also sustains.

God sustains

The whole creation belongs to God and matters to Him. He cares for it. God sustains and preserves the creation He has brought into being. This means that God is active in creation (nature) and in our lives. Without God’s sustenance, nature would cease to be. It’s like driving a car without using cruise control. The driver needs to keep pressing on the accelerator pedal to make it go and to keep it going.

The Bible says, “In Him (Christ) all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). And Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). The fundamental forces of nature are gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear forces. Gravity holds the universe together, keeps planets in orbit and keeps the atmosphere, water, and us on planet earth. Electromagnetism keeps electrons in orbit around the atomic nucleus and binds atoms to one another to form molecules and compounds. And nuclear forces hold the nucleus of an atom together. Scientists believe that these forces are related, but they don’t know how. But we know how – Jesus holds all things together! He’s the common power.

God sustains nature. Jesus said that God provides for the birds and flowers (Mt. 6:25-34). He works through the processes of nature to provide for the needs of His creatures (Job 5:10; Ps. 104:10-28).

God also sustains humanity. We are in His care (Dt. 31:6). Jesus said that all the hairs of our head are numbered (Mt. 10:30). In Athens, Paul said that God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). Also, Christians are sustained through suffering. Writing from prison, Paul said that God will meet all our needs (Phil. 4:19).

But God’s work is more than planning, creating and sustaining; He also governs.

God governs

God has planned what is to occur and history is carrying out His intention. He works behind the scene so that events fulfil His plan. History is moving towards a definite goal. This means that God is active in history. God directs history. For example, God controlled:
– Nature when Elijah said it wouldn’t rain and there was a drought for 3.5 years (1 Ki. 17-18; Lk. 4:25; Jas 5:17).
– The rise and fall of nations (Dan. 2:21; Acts 17:26).
– Events in the lives of individuals. Hannah praised God, “The Lord brings death and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts” (1 Sam. 2:6-7). David said, “my times are in your hands (Ps.31:15). And Paul realized that even before his birth, he had been set apart by God for a special work (Gal. 1:15-16).

Two illustrations come to my mind. SimCity is a city-building computer game, which was released in 1989. A person building a city in SimCity is like God directing history. And it’s like 3D virtual reality. Monash University have developed a virtual civilization of Angkor Wat in Cambodia as it was 1,000 years ago. 25,000 computer people are animated to perform tasks as four classes of people: residents, commuting workers, suppliers and visiting elites. Virtual reality gives audiences a sense of time and place. In real life it’s God who is directing history, and not a digital animator.

The government of God is when He directs the course of events to fulfil His purposes. For example, look at the history of the Jews. Although their future was threatened in Egypt, in Babylon, and in the holocaust, God has preserved them as a nation.

So God is sovereign. He rules. That’s what is meant by the term, the “kingdom of God”. David said, “His (God’s) kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19).

God also redeems. He is waiting patiently for people to repent of their sin and rebellion (2 Pt. 3:9). He is calling the chosen and justifies them when they come (Rom. 8:28-30, 33-34). Then Christ and the Holy Spirit intercede on their behalf (Rom. 8:26-27; Heb. 7:25). And God makes them more like Jesus, which is called a “good work” (Phil. 1:6). Because no one can separate believers from the love of Christ, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28; 31-39). So God is working for their good.

Meanwhile, He is preparing a place in heaven for the redeemed (Jn. 14:2). When Christ returns, God’s love, patience, holiness, mercy and grace towards sinners will be evident for all to see.

Lessons for us

We have seen that God plans, creates, sustains and governs. The planning is now past. And God has created in the past, but Christians are part of a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and God promises a millennial kingdom (Rev. 20:1-6) and a new heaven and a new earth in the future (Rev. 21:1 – 22:5). On the other hand, God is actively sustaining and governing at present and into the future. What are the lessons for us in all these things that God does?

It is evident that God implements His plans. Because His plan included creation, He creates and He sustains His creation. Because His plan includes the history of nations and individuals, he governs history. Because His plan includes salvation, He redeems those who follow Him.

Because God has a good plan for creation, history and salvation; life has purpose and we are moving towards the time when God’s glory will be revealed.

Creation has value because God made it and sustains it. But, do we believe that God will meet all our needs? We can be confident that God will sustain us. Peter said, “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Pt. 5:7).

People have value because they are made in the image of God, because Jesus came as one of us, and because believers will be like Him in heaven.

What about when we are struggling in our circumstances? Let’s remember, God is sovereign. He rules. He knows what’s happening. He cares. Like Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane we can say, “Not my will, but yours (God’s) be done” (Lk. 22:42). God answers our prayers in accordance with His will (His plan). We can be assured that our life is in God’s hands, and that His plan for our lasting good, and for His glory, is being followed. He is always in control. God is with us in our struggles. He loves us so much that He gave His life for us. So, we can continue to trust God whatever our circumstances.

God is constantly working out His purpose in our lives, in the life of the church and in the world at large; sometimes visibly and sometimes unseen. So, although God rested on the day after creation, He is certainly busy today!

Conclusion

In the past God has planned and created, but now He sustains and governs His creation. And it’s good to know that we are part of God’s plan. So Brooks and Dunn were right and wrong – God is busy, but He’s not too busy to help us today!

References: Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.

Kaiser WC (2008) “The promise-plan of God”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.

Written, April 2017

Also see: God is great
God is good

The first Easter hat

April-17_EasterHat_JPG 400pxKids both love and hate the annual Easter Hat parade. Parents likewise. It’s so much fun to wear a funny, self-made hat at Easter – to walk around and laugh at each other’s designs, impressed by the cleverness and humor. But it’s scary wondering if people think your hat is weird or daggy! And the stress zone the night before is really something. Parents with ten thumbs pull gluey fingers apart, trying desperately to make cardboard behave as they hit the craft wall at 1am. But the organized and ambitious parents are serene and un-fussed. For weeks they’ve been sourcing fairy dust and felt. And their finished creations sparkle and dazzle.

Our Father in Heaven really is the most concerned parent of all. He certainly didn’t leave the rescue of humanity till the last minute. The Bible says that, “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Which means the arrival of Jesus was a rescue mission to deal with our rotten, rebellious, bad behavior.

But the mission was a mixture of love and hate. The Bible clearly says that, “God so loved the world, that He sent His one and only Son” (Jn. 3:16). And Jesus agreed with the mission. He delighted in doing the will of His heavenly Father. But He hated the prospect of the cross. He knew His death would be terrible. He said in prayer to His Father in heaven the night before, ‘Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine’.

As Jesus was led to the cross “soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head and arrayed Him in a purple robe” (Jn. 19:1-2). They were mocking His claim to be a King. The crown was really the first Easter hat – intended to humiliate Jesus as He was paraded to His place of execution. At the cross Jesus offered His perfect, sinless life to be punished by God so that we might avoid the anger of God that we rightly deserve.

When a person follows Christ as their King they’re no longer dirty and unwashed before God. In fact, they sparkle and dazzle with freshness and new life and hope for the future. And embarrassment about former behavior is a thing of the past. If this is something you want then it’s not too late to ask God. You can pray to Him now if you’d like to make a fresh start.

Bible Verse: John 19:1-2 “Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged Him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head and arrayed Him in a purple robe.

Prayer: Dear God. I’m ashamed of many things in my life. Please forgive my sins. Help to me to start life again with you.

Images and text © Outreach Media 2017

Posted, April 2017

The Canberra Declaration

Canberra declaration 1This document was drafted in 2010 by a number of concerned Christian leaders from various backgrounds. It is a national declaration about the Judeo-Christian foundations which have made the West and Australia free, prosperous and democratic. It directs us to some of the key issues and values facing not just this nation, but all nations. The values listed here are very much under threat, and need to be vigorously and courageously championed.

The Preamble to the Australian Constitution contains the words, “Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”. As Australian citizens we continue to declare that we too put our trust in Almighty God.

For centuries, to speak of Western civilization was to speak of Christian civilization. The two were in many ways synonymous. The values that we have cherished and sought to strengthen are in large measure founded on the Judeo-Christian belief system. The many freedoms, advantages, opportunities, values and liberties which characterize the West owe much to the growth of Christianity with its inherent belief in the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God and the code of behavior that flows from this belief.

The Canberra Declaration follows on from the 2009 Manhattan Declaration and the 2010 Westminster Declaration. It declares that when Christian values are respected and allowed freedom of expression, not just confined to so-called sacred spaces but in the public arena as well, society is richer and healthier.

We wish to emphasize three areas that demand particular attention in our contemporary Australian society, namely religious freedom, marriage and the family, and the sanctity of human life. Were we to undermine any one of these values, the social fabric of our nation would be seriously weakened, to our personal and collective detriment.

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom includes freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. The importance of these freedoms is shown in countries where they are threatened or absent. Police states and totalitarian nations inevitably begin with the curtailment of basic liberties, including religious freedom and the right to speak one’s mind and conscience. This includes the right to change one’s religious beliefs.

We affirm the basic necessity of freedom of conscience, having the liberty to speak publicly about one’s faith and beliefs, and having the right to practise the religion of one’s choice. If these freedoms are removed – even in the name of supposed benefits – the prized values of democracy and liberty are seriously undermined.

In Australia today these freedoms are being restricted by laws which, although appearing positive on first reading, have the potential to lead to unintended and unacceptable consequences. These laws include anti-discrimination legislation, hate crime laws and legislation on religious and sexual vilification – each of which may be interpreted in a way that effectively works as a barrier to religious freedom and freedom of speech.

Thus the signers of this declaration affirm the fundamental right of Australians to religious freedom and freedom of speech, and we oppose legislation which denies such freedoms. We likewise oppose laws subjugating our nation to foreign powers and instrumentalities which restrict these freedoms.

Marriage and Family

Another vital package of values and social benefits is the long-standing institution of the natural family resulting from marriage between a man and a woman – as affirmed by the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act: “…the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

No other social institution has done so much good for people and for nations, yet marriage is being undermined, to the detriment of children, individuals, and society itself.

Lifelong marriage between a man and a woman guarantees children their biological birthright to a mother and a father and has a proven track record of providing them with protection, education, welfare, support and nurture. No other arrangement has improved upon the benefits of marriage.

In the face of competing alternatives and moves to redefine marriage, we affirm the importance and social utility of marriage between a man and a woman and the families formed thereby.

Human Life

The third important set of values revolves around the sanctity of human life which is being undermined in much of the Western world, through abortion, euthanasia, and some of the new reproductive technologies.

We believe that all human life, being made in the image of God, has intrinsic and equal value from conception to life’s natural end.

The very heart of a humane and civilized society is based on the way it treats its most vulnerable and innocent members including the unborn and the disabled. We therefore insist on the right of all persons, including those who are vulnerable or dependent, to protection from conception to natural death. We will support, protect, and be advocates for such people, since to do anything less is to weaken our humanity and despise our personhood.

We will not comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves the intentional taking of innocent human life.

Conclusion

Religious freedom, marriage and family, and the sacredness of human life have provided the foundations enabling Western democratic societies to flourish. We erode these foundations at our peril.

The faith which is at the heart of many of the values and strengths underpinning the Australian nation now compels us to speak up in their defence.

For the future of this nation, and for our children’s future, we call upon all like-minded citizens to support and sign this declaration.

Posted, April 2017

God is good

God-is-good 1 400pxIn a world of evil, pain and suffering, some question whether God is good. Instead they claim that the God described in the Bible is cruel and definitely not good. But how do we define “good”? Is it what makes me happy? Is it what only happens in the short-term? It is being nice and politically correct? Or is it different to these?

What does the Bible reveal about God’s attributes, characteristics, nature or qualities? In this case we are looking at who God is, not what He does. Erickson (2013) divides these attributes into two categories: God’s greatness, and God’s goodness. My previous blogpost summarized aspects of God’s greatness.

This blogpost summarizes eight aspects of God’s goodness. They may be grouped into purity (holy, righteousness, and just), integrity (genuineness, honesty and faithfulness), and love (benevolent, gracious, merciful, and persistent).

God is Holy

The Bible says that God is holy (Ex. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2;2; Ps. 99:3). He is “high and exalted” (Is. 6:1; 57:15). In this context, the Hebrew word qadosh (Strongs #6918) means that God is separate from all of creation. The proper reaction to God’s holiness is awe and reverence (Ps. 99:3). Also, God is not wicked or evil. He “cannot be tempted by evil” (Jas. 1:13NIV). This means that God is absolutely pure and He is untouched by the evil in the world. So God is holy.

God is Righteous

David says, “The Lord is righteousness in all His ways” (Ps. 145:17). He always does what is right. Nothing He does is wrong. There is no sin or wickedness in Him (Ps. 92:15). In fact, He defines what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s the source of morality. God sets the standard of righteousness. And He commands only what is right (Ps. 19:7-9). So God is righteous.

God is Just

Isaiah says, “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). Justice is when God requires others to follow His moral laws. The Bible says that sin has consequences and that God will punish sin. For example, although the wicked may prosper (Ps. 73:3-12), they will be ultimately destroyed (Ps: 73:17-20, 27). Although this justice may not be evident in the short-term, it is certain in the long-term. So God is just.

God has Integrity

Integrity includes genuineness (being true), honesty (telling the truth), and faithfulness (proving true). Jeremiah says “But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God, the eternal King” (Jer. 10:10). God is real, unlike many other gods. And His attributes are true. So God is genuine.

What God says is accurate. God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). God “does not lie or change His mind; for He is not a human being, that He should change His mind” (1 Sam. 15:29). Because of this and His omniscience, He can always be trusted. So God is honest.

God keeps all His promises; “God is not human, that He should lie, not a human being, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfil?” (Num. 23:19). So God is faithful.

God is Benevolent

God is loving and caring. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). This is a sacrificial, unselfish love, that seeks the good of others and which is called agape in Greek (Strongs #25). He died for His enemies, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us … while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:8-10). God’s benevolence extents to all humanity and to animals (Mt. 5:45; 6:26, 30; 10:29). So God is benevolent.

God is Gracious

God deals with us according to our need; not according to our merit, worthiness or what we deserve as sinners. He supplies underserved and unmerited favors. God told the Israelites, “The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). And Paul said, “In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through His blood (death), the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8). Our salvation comes through God’s grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). This is God’s response to the fact that we have rebelled against Him and so deserve to be banished from His presence forever. So God is gracious.

God is Merciful

God is also compassionate; “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him (His faithful followers)” (Ps. 103:13). For example, when God rescued the Israelites from Egypt He said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7). Jesus also felt compassion for the physical and spiritual condition of the people He met; “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). In response He “went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Mt. 9:35). So God is merciful.

God is Persistent

Another aspect of God’s love is persistence. He withholds judgment and offers salvation and grace over long periods of time. David said, “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15). God often delays judgment so that people will repent and turn to Him (Rom. 2:4; 2 Pt. 3:15). It seems that God warned Noah’s generation for 120 years about the coming flood (Gen. 6:3; 1 Pt. 3:20). Also, He was patient with Israel even though they repeatedly rebelled against Him. And Christ’s second coming is delayed because God doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). So God is persistent in His love.

God’s goodness in Scripture

The Bible refers repeatedly to God’s goodness. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each said to be good (Neh. 9:20; Mt. 7:11; Jn. 10:11). God is inherently good and His actions are good – “You are good and what you do is good” (Ps. 119:68). The Hebrew word towb (Strongs #2896) means good and kind (Brown-Driver-Briggs).

The Israelites praised God with thanksgiving saying “He is good” because His love to them endures forever. (1 Chron. 16:34; Ps. 136:1, Jer. 33:11; Ezra 3:11). Reasons to praise God include being good, loving, and faithful – “the Lord is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations” (Ps. 100:5; 135:3). David gives reasons to praise God – “They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness” (Ps. 145:7). According to the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, His righteousness is said to be equivalent to His abundant goodness.

David appeals to God’s goodness when he prays for forgiveness – “you, Lord, are good” (Ps. 25:7). He mentions God’s goodness in association with His guidance of those who fear Him – “Good and upright is the Lord” (Ps. 25:8). David is confident that God will answer his prayer for deliverance from his enemies – “the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 27:13). When he was being pursued by his enemies, David used a figure of speech urging people to trust and experience God – “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8; 1 Pt. 2:3). The context is the Lord delivering the righteous in their sufferings. And when David prayed for deliverance from enemies, he praised God for being forgiving and good – “You, Lord, are forgiving and good” (Ps. 86:5).

Moses saw that God’s goodness included His mercy, forbearance, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and judgment (Ex. 33:19; 34:6-7). And Hezekiah appealed to God’s goodness when he prayed for forgiveness of those who ate the Passover without purifying themselves – “the Lord, who is good” (2 Chron. 30:18).

Jesus reminded the rich ruler that only God is intrinsically good – “No one is good—except God alone” (Mt. 19:17; Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19). The Greek word agathos (Strongs #18) means inherently good (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). It describes what originates from God.

Peter alludes to Psalm 34:8 – “now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pt. 2:3). Since they have personally experienced God’s goodness, they should lay aside the sins mentioned in verse 1. This shows that we must personally experience God to know His goodness.

The kindness (goodness), love and grace of God is why He acted to save fallen humanity (Tit. 2:11; 3:4). The Greek word chrestotes (Strongs #5544) is translated goodness, or kindness (Thayer’s Greek Lexion).

God and humanity

These are all positive moral attributes because God has no negative moral attributes (sin). And God exercises these attributes all the time, they are part of His character. Because God is good, everything He does is good. For example, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28).

The attributes listed above can also be found in humanity, but not on a continuous basis. They are part of humanity being created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). People can be holy, righteous and just, but not when they are sinful. People can be genuine, honest and faithful, but not when they are sinful. People can be benevolent, gracious, merciful and persistent in love, but not when they are sinful. This means that people don’t exercise these attributes all the time like God does.

The fact that we can share these attributes with God would help Christians to represent Him on earth. Through them we can “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4). For example, our new self is righteous and holy (Heb. 12:10; Eph. 4:24). And Christians and churches are urged to be holy (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 5:25-27). Although they are already positionally holy through Christ, they are to become holy in practice.

Lessons for us

Our God is good because He is pure, trustworthy and loving. His purity is evident as holiness, righteousness and justice. His trustworthiness is evident as genuineness, honesty and faithfulness. And His love is evident as benevolence, grace, mercy and persistence. In this respect God is unique, being far above humanity and any other deity. He’s greater than all other gods. So He deserves our praise and thanks!

That’s how the Bible defines what is “good”. Because God is pure, He deserves our respect. Because God is trustworthy, let’s trust His message in the Bible. Because God is loving, let’s accept His love shown in Christ’s sacrifice. And because God is good, let’s follow and serve Him.

References
Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.

Written, April 2017

Also see: Good is great
What God does

God is great

God is great 5 400pxThe Islamic call to prayer begins with “Allahu akbar”, which means “God is great” or “God is greater”. This phrase is recited by Muslims in many different situations.

There are lots of ideas about God. Some think God’s like a harsh judge or policeman. Others think God’s like an indulgent grandfather. Is God close or distant? Is God involved in our world or disinterested? Is God separate from creation (nature) or a part of it? Is God fixed or changeable?

Job’s friends were rebuked for misrepresenting God (Job. 42:7). And the Israelites were commanded not to worship false gods (Ex. 20:3-5). God has revealed Himself to humanity in creation, the Bible and Jesus Christ. As all we know about Jesus is from the Bible, the Bible is the best way to know what God is like and what He is not like.

What does the Bible reveal about God’s attributes, characteristics, nature or qualities? In this case we are looking at who God is, not what He does. Erickson (2013) divides these attributes into two categories: God’s greatness, and God’s goodness. This blogpost summarizes eleven aspects of God’s greatness.

God is Spiritual

Jesus said, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24NIV). This means that God’s not part of our physical world. It’s like He is in a different dimension or realm of reality. He is not composed of physical matter and is not restricted by the limitations of our physical universe. So God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15-16). But Jesus did reveal some of God’s attributes when He took on a human form (Jn. 1:18; Col. 1:15). So, let’s study the Bible to find out more about the unseen God and how He wants us to live.

God is Alive

Jesus said, “as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son (Jesus) also to have life in Himself” (Jn. 5:26). God is self-existent and the source of all life (Acts 17:25). In contrast to dead idols, He is a living God (Jer.10:10; 1 Th. 1:9). Because God is alive, He can think, act, communicate, and answer our prayers. And He can give spiritual life to those who seek Him. So, let’s bring our cares and needs to the living God in prayer.

God is Personal

The Bible teaches that God is personal, with self-consciousness, intelligence to reason and design, a will, capable of feeling, and choosing and having a relationship with people. Personal names and pronouns are applied to God. In the beginning, God communicated with Adam and Eve. And later, Jesus visited earth as a human being. God is not an impersonal force. So, let’s interact with the personal God as we read the Bible.

God is Triune

It is evident from Scripture that there is one true God who is in the form of three persons. When dismissing idols as gods, Paul said that “There is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). And in a discussion on faith and deeds James said “You believe that there is one God. Good!” (Jas. 2:19). So Christianity is monotheistic. But it is a different monotheism to that of Islam.

Jesus told His disciples, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son (Jesus Christ) and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Here the singular name of God is said to be “the Father … the Son and … the Holy Spirit”, which is three persons. Jesus was God (Jn. 1:1). He was “in very nature God” and equal with God (Phil. 2:6). Jesus was also “the exact representation of His (God’s) being” and called “God” and “Lord” (Heb. 1: 3, 8, 10). Also, the Bible uses the “Holy Spirit” and “God” as interchangeable expressions” (Acts. 5:3-4; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19). So let’s praise God for sending Jesus as part of His plan of salvation. And pray to Him in Jesus name because Jesus is our mediator (Jn. 16:23). And realize that the Holy Spirit is always available to help us because He lives within us.

God is Infinite

As God created everything, He can’t be limited by anything. This includes: time, space, knowledge, power, and anything else we can think of. He is outside time and space (or in a different dimension or realm of being). So He can’t be limited by any of the constraints in the universe. God’s greatness can’t be measured. So, let’s respond with awe to the infinite God. As this attribute is beyond our understanding, it is considered in more detail in the next four attributes.

God is Eternal

Because God existed before there was time, He isn’t limited in time. He’s not located at a particular time in history because He created time. This means that He doesn’t have a time clock like us. He always is, always was and always will be. God is eternal – He is “the eternal God” (Gen. 21:33; Dt., 33:27; Rom. 16:26). As God existed before anything else came into being (Gen. 1:1), He can continue to exist independently of everything else. Because He had no beginning (or cause), God has no birthday or age. He also has no end – He is immortal. Moses prayed, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). This means that God is always present. He has access to creation at all times. Although God isn’t bound by time, He is aware of the succession of events within the history of the universe. And because God is eternal, He doesn’t get taken by surprise. So, let’s appreciate the eternal life we have though the eternal God.

God is Everywhere (omnipresent)

Because God existed before there was space, He isn’t limited in space. He’s not located at a particular point because He created space. This means that He doesn’t have any GPS coordinates like us. Conversely, there is no point in space where it can be said that God isn’t present. David wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens (up), you are there; if I make my bed in the depths (down), you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn (east), if I settle on the far side of the sea (west), even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139:7-10). David couldn’t hide from God’s presence. This means that God is accessible at any point in His creation. And God can access all the universe. So God is omnipresent. But this doesn’t mean that He is everything. So, let’s be aware of God’s presence at all times.

God is All-knowing (omniscient)

Because God existed before knowledge came into being, He knows everything. David wrote, “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Ps. 139:2-6). And the writer of Hebrews says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him (God) to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). God sees and knows everything! Nothing is hidden from Him. Nothing is a mystery to Him. So God is omniscient. Since He knows everything, His justice will always be administered fairly. So, let’s trust the all-knowing God to know what is best for us.

God is All-powerful (omnipotent)

Because God created and sustains everything, He has unlimited power. From Genesis to Revelation, He is referred to as “God Almighty”. God told Abram, “I am God Almighty” (Gen. 17:1). And John saw “the Lord God Almighty” in his vison of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:22). God’s power over nature is illustrated in the Bible by many miracles such as the birth of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and Christ’s miracles including the stilling of the storm. Of course God cannot act contrary to His nature or fail to fulfil His promises. So, let’s trust the all-powerful God to keep His promises.

God is Constant (unchanging)

God’s attributes don’t change with time. Although the Jews repeatedly broke their covenant with God, God kept His part of the covenant in accordance with the statement that “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6). And James says that God “does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas. 1:17). There is no reason for God to change because He is perfect. So He is constant, consistent, reliable and trustworthy. He’s perpetually the same. That’s why God is said to be like a rock (Dt. 32:4). This means that God is dependable and will fulfil His promises. So, let’s rely on the constant God.

God is All-sufficient (sustainer)

When Jacob blessed his son Joseph, he said that God Almighty blesses “with blessings of the skies above, blessings of the deep springs below, blessings of the breast and womb” (Gen. 49:25). So God nourishes and sustains His people like a mother breastfeeds her infant. Because God is self-sufficient, He needs nothing from anyone. He is able to supply all the needs of His people; “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). God has addressed all our problems, doubts and difficulties, in the gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ. So, let’s rely on the all-sufficient God to get through the trials of life.

God’s greatness in Scripture

The Bible refers repeatedly to God’s greatness. He is “the great God” (Dt. 10:17; Ezra 5:8; Neh. 8:6; 9:32; Ps. 95:3; Dan. 2:45) and “great and awesome” (Dt. 7:21; Dan. 9:4). Also, Jesus is said to be “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13). The Hebrew word is gadol (Strongs #1419), which in this context means great in importance (Brown-Driver-Briggs). The Greek word is megas (Strongs #3173), which in this context means a person of great rank because of their ability, virtue and power (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). In these passages, this greatness relates to the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The magnitude of His greatness is described as:
– “God is greater than any mortal” (Job 33:12)
– “How great is God—beyond our understanding!” (Job 36:26)
– God is “very great” (Ps. 96:4)
– God is “greater than all” (Jn. 10:29)

God’s greatness demands a response:
– “praise the greatness of our God!” (Dt. 32:3)
– “great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” (1 Chron. 16:25; Ps. 104:1)
– “And they were all amazed at the greatness of God” (Lk. 9:43)

God and humanity

The only attributes listed above that are shared by humanity are spirit, life and personality. But there are also differences. While on earth, our spirits are linked with our bodies, whereas God the Father and the Holy Spirit are spirits without bodies and Jesus Christ is a spirit linked to a resurrected (heavenly) body. Although we are alive, we are not self-existent or the source of all life. And although we can know, feel, will and act, we can’t do this as three persons! But because we are both personal, we can have a relationship with God.

Lessons for us

Our God is great because He is an infinite, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, living and personal triune spirit, who is reliable (constant) and all-sufficient. God is mega! He is unique, being far above humanity and any other deity. He’s greater than Allah and all other gods. So He deserves our praise and worship!

References
Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.

Written, April 2017

Also see: God is good
What God does

Is insistence on Sabbath-keeping legalism?

The blogpost that has generated the most comments on my blog is “I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?” This post was written in 2011. No one has clicked the “Like” button, but at least 18 people have left comments. So it has generated lots of discussion. Most of the commentators disagree with the opinion expressed in the post.

Legalism 5Legalism

After his commentary on the book of Galatians, MacDonald (1989) states that “On completing a study of Galatians, one might conclude that Paul defeated the teachers of legalism so effectively that the issue would never trouble the church again. History and experience prove otherwise! Legalism has become so important a part of Christendom that most people believe that it actually belongs. Yes, legalists are still with us.”

The major example MacDonald gives of contemporary legalism is insistence on Sabbath-keeping. He refers to those who warn Christians that they must keep the Sabbath if they are to be saved at last. Then he gives the following warning of this false teaching and how to answer it.

The (false) teachers of the Sabbath usually begin by preaching the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ. They use well-known evangelical hymns to lure the unwary, and appear to place much emphasis on the Scriptures. But before long, they put their followers under the law of Moses, especially the commandment concerning the Sabbath. (The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, or Saturday).

Moral law and ceremonial law

How do they do this in the light of Paul’s clear teaching that the Christian is dead to the law? How do they get around the plain statements of Galatians? The answer is that they make a sharp distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law. The moral law is the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law covers the other regulations given by God, such as rules concerning unclean foods, leprosy, offerings to God, and so forth.

The moral law they say has never been revoked. It is an expression of God’s eternal truth. To commit idolatry, murder, or adultery will always be contrary to God’s law. The ceremonial law, however, has been done away in Christ. Therefore, they conclude, when Paul teaches that the Christian is dead to the law, he is speaking about the ceremonial law and not the Ten Commandments.

Since the moral law is still in effect, Christians are bound to keep it, they insist. This means that they must keep the Sabbath, that they must do no work on that day. They assert that one of the popes of the Roman Catholic Church (or the Emperor Constantine) ordered the change from Sabbath-observance to observance of Sunday, in utter violation of the Scriptures.

This reasoning sounds logical and appealing. However, its great condemning feature is that it is entirely contrary to God’s word! Note the following seven points.

Seven points

  1. In 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, the Ten Commandments are definitely stated to be “brought to an end” for the believer in Christ. In verse 7, the law is described as “the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone”. This could only mean the moral law, not the ceremonial law. Only the Ten Commandments were engraved in stones by the finger of God (Ex.31:18). In verse 11, we read that the ministry that brought death, though glorious, was “being brought to an end” (ESV), “fading away” (HCSB), “made ineffective” (NET), or “transitory” (NIV). Nothing could be more decisive than this. The Sabbath has no claim on the Christian.
  2. No Gentile was ever commanded to keep the Sabbath. The law was given to the Jewish nation only (Ex. 31:13). Although God Himself rested on the seventh day, He did not command anyone else to do so until He gave the law to the children of Israel.
  3. Christians did not switch from the Sabbath to the first day of the week because of the decree of any pope (or Roman Emperor). We set aside the Lord’s Day (Sunday) in a special way for worship and for service because the Lord Jesus rose from the dead on that day, a proof that the work of redemption was completed (Jn. 20:1). Also, on that day the early disciples met to break bread (celebrate the Lord’s Supper), showing forth the Lord’s death (Acts 20:7), and it was the day appointed by God for Christians to set apart their offerings as the Lord had prospered them (1 Cor. 16:1-2). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit was sent down from heaven on the first day of the week.
    Christians do not “observe” the Lord’s day as a means of achieving holiness, or from fear of punishment; they set it apart because of loving devotion to the One who gave Himself for them.
  4. Paul does not distinguish between the moral law and the ceremonial law. Rather, he insists that the law is a complete unit, and that a curse rests on those who seek to attain righteousness by it, yet fail to keep it all.
  5. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament as moral instruction for the children of God. They deal with things that are inherently right or wrong. The one commandment which is omitted is the law of the Sabbath. The keeping of a day is not inherently right or wrong. There is no instruction to Christians to keep the Sabbath. Rather the Scripture distinctly states that the Christian cannot be condemned for failing to keep it (Col. 2:16)!
  6. The penalty for breaking the Sabbath in the Old Testament was death (Ex. 35:2). But those who insist on believers keeping the Sabbath today do not carry out the penalty on offenders. They thus dishonour the law and destroy its authority by failing to insist that its demands be met. They are saying, in effect, “This is God’s law and you just keep it, but nothing will happen if you break it”.
  7. Christ, and not the law, is the believer’s rule for life. We should live as He lived. This is an even higher standard than was set by the law (Mt. 5:17-48). We are empowered to live holy lives by the Holy Spirit. We want to live holy lives because of love for Christ. The righteousness demanded by the law is fulfilled by those who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4)

Conclusion

Thus, the teaching that believers must keep the Sabbath is directly contrary to Scripture (Col. 2:16), and is simply a “different gospel” upon which God’s word pronounces a curse (Gal. 1:7,9).

May each one be given wisdom from God to discern the evil doctrine of legalism in whatever form it may appear! May we never seek justification or sanctification through ceremonies or human effort, but depend completely and only on the Lord Jesus Christ for every need. May we always remember that legalism is an insult to God because it substitutes the shadow for the Reality—ceremonialism for Christ.

Reference
MacDonald William (1989) “Believer’s Bible commentary”, 2nd edition, Thomas Nelson, p. 1928-1930.

Written, April 2017

Also see: What about keeping the Sabbath day?
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?
What does the New Testament say about the Sabbath?
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses.  Is this true?
The Sabbath day difference between Jesus and Paul
Why the new covenant is better
The sin of legalism

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