jasonbwatson

February 26, 2016

God’s Unbreakable Love

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 9:43 pm
Tags: , ,

A couple of years ago I posted a message I had preached on the love of God, a message I had entitled “God’s Love Is.” in that examination of John 3:16 and the characteristics of God’s love, I ended with the point that God’s love is unbreakable. I said that there is nothing…absolutely nothing…that can separate us from God’s love. I drew this from the closing phrase of John 3:16, which says, “whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have everlasting life.” There is no question, there is no condition, there is no fine print or exception, there is no “hope so” when it comes to the eternal life God has promised to those who accept His Son as Savior.

To reinforce this point I also looked briefly at Romans 8:38-39, and I want to unpack that verse a bit more here as a follow up. As you read this text, ponder carefully the words:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now read it again from The Living Bible, because hearing or reading it a different way can sometimes reinforce a point or reveal something you did not notice the first time.

For I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels won’t, and all the powers of hell itself cannot keep God’s love away. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, or where we are—high above the sky, or in the deepest ocean—nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Christ when he died for us.

Depending on your translation, verse 38 begins with “I am persuaded,” “I am convinced,” “I am sure.” This word meant, in the original language, a strong and unwavering confidence or certainty. So Paul is saying, in other words, “I have no doubt whatsoever—I am 100%, absolutely, positively, no doubt about it, sure that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

At the risk of bringing you crashing down from that spiritual mountaintop, let me give you two important points before I unpack these verses a bit more, because they are full of such profound truth that we cannot miss it. First, you must always remember that the unbreakableness (if that’s a word) of God’s love has nothing to do with you and everything to do with God. You and I are not expected to maintain our connection to God’s love, nor can we. We are fallen sinners and, even after salvation, we continue to sin. That we are still loved by God is not because we are so wonderful, certainly not because we deserve it, but because God chooses to love us.

Finally, the fact that God’s love is unbreakable and nothing we can do can separate us from that love is not permission to sin. The fact that we could never mess up so badly that God would stop loving us does not mean that what we think and how we act does not matter. Galatians 6:9 says that we are not to grow weary in doing good. James 2:26 says that faith without works is dead. Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Ephesians 2:19 reads, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

I think it is also worth noting that just a few verses earlier, in verse 28, Paul said “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” In verse 35 Paul rattles off another list of things that his readers might think could separate them from the love of God–or be evidence of their separation from the love of God. He writes this: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” Then in verse 37, the verse immediately preceding the two verses we looked at last time and began with here, Paul answers that question like this: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Now, did Paul know a thing or two about suffering and persecution during his lifetime? Absolutely. We know, from Scripture, that Paul was stoned and left for dead. He was beaten with rods three times. Five times he received thirty-nine lashes with a whip. That was the maximum number allowed by Roman law, and it was so violent and severe that there are many instances of people dying from those whippings. Paul was attacked by an angry mob. He had to be lowered over a wall in a basket in an order to save his life. He was shipwrecked and floated at sea for hours. He was bitten by a poisonous viper. He was under house arrest for two years without ever facing a trial. So Paul knows that of which he speaks!

John Calvin commented on this passage this way: “He is now carried away into hyperbolic expressions, that he might confirm us more fully in those things which are to be experienced. Whatever, he says, there is in life or in death, which seems capable of tearing us away from God, shall effect nothing….”

Alexander MacLaren, a 19th century Irish minister, had this to say about Paul’s list:

The Apostle begins his fervid catalogue of vanquished foes by a pair of opposites which might seem to cover the whole ground-’neither death nor life.’ What more can be said? Surely, these two include everything. From one point of view they do. But yet, as we shall see, there is more to be said. And the special reason for beginning with this pair of possible enemies is probably to be found by remembering that they are a pair, that between them they do cover the whole ground and represent the extremes of change which can befall us. The one stands at the one pole, the other at the other. If these two stations, so far from each other, are equally near to God’s love, then no intermediate point can be far from it. If the most violent change which we can experience does not in the least matter to the grasp which the love of God has on us, or to the grasp which we may have on it, then no less violent a change can be of any consequence.

Rev. Rodney Kleyn addressed this passage in a sermon by recounting a story he had heard that made abundantly clear to him the power of God’s love, and I think it bears repeating since it could indeed help to grasp just how comprehensive the love of God is:

I heard an illustration in a sermon preached on this verse from one of our older ministers. That was ten years ago. It stuck in my mind. So I am going to use that illustration now so that, I hope and pray, it sticks also in your mind. This is like a child who has to sleep at night and it is dark in his room. He is crying to his parents: “I can’t sleep. I think there is a bogeyman in the closet.” And so his father comes into the room and says, “Son, there isn’t. Let me show you.” And he turns the light on. And he opens the closet door to show his son that there is no one there. And then he says to his son, “Just to make sure you know, let’s look in every part of this room.” They look in all the drawers, and they empty out the toy box—and there is no one there. Then he says to his son, “But just in case you still wonder, let me take you through the house.” He takes his son by the hand and takes him into every room in the house. They look in every closet, in every drawer, in every trash can. They go into the basement. They look in the utility room. They dig through the garage. And he says to his son, “See, you can sleep. There’s no bogeyman.”

Something like that here. Paul transports us from our experience in our life to all the expanses of the universe—past, present, and future. He takes the doubting and the fearful and the questioning child of God who is looking at his own life, and he says, “Come with me, let me show you.” Not death, not life, not angels, not principalities or powers, nothing in the present, nothing in the future, not height, not depth, and in case I missed it, no other creature, no other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ. Why so? Because there is a love stronger, greater, than any creature. What a wonderful comfort that is for the child of God.

Everyone has fears. Everyone is afraid of something. For us as adults it probably is not the bogeyman. For us in America it probably is not persecution for our faith. But we still have very real fears that we face. Taking some of those fears from Chapman University’s 2015 Survey of American Fears, and adding some others that I know many people fear and think about, let me offer you a rewording of Romans 8:38-39 in very contemporary vernacular:

I am certain that neither terrorism nor nuclear attack, nor global warming nor overpopulation, nor Democrats nor Republicans, nor government corruption nor Obamacare, nor earthquakes nor tornadoes, nor unemployment nor bankruptcy, nor artificial intelligence nor identity theft, nor cancer nor heart attack, nor anything else ever created nor yet-to-be-created shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

God’s love truly is unbreakable.

February 16, 2016

My trust and my hope

I know I am not the only one who has been thinking a lot about the unexpected passing of Supreme Justice Antonin Scalia over the past few days. His legacy will last for decades and his decisions, and minority reports, will no doubt be studied by law students, lawyers and judges for even longer. Albert Mohler was correct when he wrote, “Antonin Scalia is almost surely the most influential justice to sit on the Supreme Court in many decades. The loss of his influence, as well as his his crucial vote, is monumental.” I agree with Mohler, and I was very sad to learn of Scalia’s passing. I was sad for his family’s loss of a loved one but I was mostly sad for our country and for the impact that Scalia’s too-soon departure from the Supreme Court will potentially have on both the present and future of this nation. That is why I also found it necessary to reflect on the following thoughts.

First, the United States as a nation, conservatism as a movement, judicial restraint as a philosophy and respect for states’ rights and individual liberty as ideologies did not begin with Antonin Scalia nor will any of them end there. He was a great and influential figure in each of those areas but now that he is gone they must all go on. Someone else–or, ideally, multiple someone elses–must step up and fill the very large shoes left behind by Justice Scalia. This is much like a baseball team losing its star player. The face of the team may change, the strategy of the team may change, the success of the team may even change, but the other players do not pack up and go home.

Second, this has been a great opportunity for me to remember the importance of seeing things from someone else’s perspective. Right off the bat I was thinking that I hope there will be some way for the Republicans to delay the confirmation of a new justice until after the election. There is no guarantee how the election will turn out, of course, but there is at least a chance that a Republican will win, which would also greatly increase the likelihood of the new justice being more in line with the positions held by Scalia than any justice appointed by President Obama. Mitch McConnell announced right away that he thought the new justice should not be appointed until after the election, and others were saying the same thing. President Obama, of course, indicated that he would appoint a justice. On Sunday evening it occurred to me that if the situation was reversed and there were a Republican in the White House right now I have no doubt that I, Mitch McConnell, and many others would be advocating for an appointment and confirmation before the election. It was rather like remembering that I cannot only like and defend free speech when it is speech I agree with and approve of. The beauty of free speech is just that–it is free, meaning you can advocate whatever you want no matter how much I do not like it, and I can do the same no matter how much you do not like it. I am not saying I want President Obama to appoint the next justice, but I cannot in good conscience argue that he should not, or that his appointment should not be confirmed if qualified.

The third point is somewhat similar to the first one but is important enough on its own that it needs to be stated separately. No one’s hope is in–or should be in–originalism, conservatism or any other philosophy or ideology of man. Neither is it in any human being, politician, judge, theologian or anything else–including Antonin Scalia. Psalm 146:3 says, in the Good News Translation, “Don’t put your trust in human leaders; no human being can save you.” One reason not to put trust in them is that they, as Matthew Poole wrote, “are utterly unable frequently to give you that help which they promise, and you expect.” Antonin Scalia was a wonderful Supreme Court judge, but his power and influence was limited. He was also a flawed human being. In his Notes on the Bible Albert Barnes comments on Psalm 146:3 this way: “Rely on God rather than on man, however exalted he may be. There is a work of protection and salvation which no man, however exalted he may be, can perform for you; a work which God alone, who is the Maker of all things, and who never dies, can accomplish.” If Justice Scalia had lived to be 150 and remained on the Supreme Court for that entire time, he could not have ever accomplished anything that would save anyone, eternally speaking.

Albert Mohler was correct; a giant has fallen. But that giant was a human being. A giant in the legal realm, yes. Still–and Albert Mohler would wholeheartedly agree with me, so do not read this as me suggesting that he said anything otherwise–whether or not I like the person who assumes the seat vacated by Scalia, whether or not that person is an originalist or an activist judge, is not where my priority should be. Whether or not Antonin Scalia is on the Supreme Court does not matter, eternally speaking. What matters is that God is still on the throne–and in Him will I place my trust and my hope.

February 3, 2016

Will you be my friend?

I was recently teaching my U.S. History students about life in the United States during the early 20th century. One of the points I made was the very close same-sex friendships were common at that time. Not coincidentally, I also explained that homosexual behavior was illegal at the time, even though there were urban areas where it was fairly common. This got me to thinking that close same-sex friendships seem fairly uncommon in 21st century America. I do wonder whether or not the increasing acceptance of homosexuality has anything to do with that, because there is no denying that those who are not homosexual may fear the perception of homosexual tendencies if they have very close–shall we say intimate (in the non-sexual, non-physical meaning)–same-sex friends. If that is the primary reason for the lack of such friendships that is another sad result of the increasing embrace of homosexual behavior and identity.

Still, I think there is more to the problem than that. I think it is far to say that there is very little instruction, in schools, churches or families, about what it means to be a friend. Sure, we teach broad-stroke lessons about being honest, sharing toys, not lying and so on, but, other than a series of devotionals on friendship that a colleague shared a few months ago, I cannot remember the last time I heard a message or a serious lesson on what it means to be a friend. Search “friendship” on Amazon.com and you will get some 86,500 results. Nearly 54,000 of those, however, are children’s books or works of fiction. Still, that leaves more than 32,000 books on the subject that do not fall into those categories. So what do those thousands of books have to offer?

Well, when I narrow down the results to the “Relationships” category and then request that the results be sorted according to “most reviews” the top results are the well-known How to Win Friends and Influence People (which is not exactly about deep, meaningful friendships), Tuesdays With Morrie (a heartwarming account of a specific friendship and the impact it had on Mitch Albom but, again, not really a how-to book on friendship), Jane Austen’s Emma (which really should be in the fiction/literature category), Matched (a science fiction/fantasy novel also erroneously categorized), An Invisible Thread (which looks like it may be interesting, but along the same lines as Tuesdays), and Little Women (again, miscategorized). Among the top fifty results it appears to me that only two are possibly anywhere close to what I have in mind when I say a book about what it means to be a friend and to develop a deep, meaningful friendship. Both of those, by the way, are about relationships in general rather than the unique relationship of friendship in particular. The books I found in my search that seemed they were about friendships specifically were all targeted at friendship among women. I did finally find two books that are focused on male friendships, and while I have read neither the descriptions seem promising. They were Breaking the Male Code by Robert Garfield and Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendship by Geoffrey Greif. The only book I found in my search–which was not, I will grant, exhaustive–that seemed like it might be along the lines of what I was looking for without being gender specific was The Art of Being a Good Friend by Hugh Black. I may have to check that out.

Last November Janie B. Cheaney wrote, “Stranded in a landscape of ferocious individualism, with families and communities falling apart all around, it might be time for the church to develop a theology of friendship.” I think Cheaney is absolutely correct, and her terminology gave me another search term for my Amazon quest. Searching “theology of friendship,” however, did not yield much either. There were some results–320 to be exact–but most of them were about two friends exploring their differences, about the trials of “celibate gay Christians,” about friendship with Jesus and about specific friendships, such as with a disabled individual. There were a few books that looked they may come close to what I was hoping to find but it was obvious they were not all that popular. Martin Marty wrote a book in 1980 called, simply, Friendship. It is available from four different sellers for the staggeringly small sum of one penny and it is sitting around 2.8 million on the Amazon bestseller list. Gary Inrig’s 1988 book Quality Friendship, published in 1988, seemed like another possible match. There are six sellers offering it at one cent, but it is some 2.3 million places higher on the bestseller list than Marty’s book. I was curious if there were any recent books that might approximate what I was hoping to find and I discovered that Adam Holland’s Friendship Established was released just yesterday–in e-book only, it appears. Skimming the first five pages of results revealed nothing else.

Where to look next? Google, of course. There I found the work of a fellow WordPress blogger whose blog is entitled Resolution 28 (which comes from Jonathan Edwards). It included an excellent post entitled “Theology of Friendship.” The author of the blog, identified only as “bc,” wrote this:

Yet there is a gaping hole in the church’s theology of friendship. Some may not know what genuine Christian friendships are supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to feel like. Even more disconcerting is that many people know mentally what good, Christ-centered friendships are supposed to be like yet half-heartedly implement those concepts into their own lives. We often hear stories of Christians who hold grudges, gossip, and take advantage of each other–I’ve seen them and I’ve been a part of them–and often times those associated are the ones who attend church regularly!  It seems that too often our friendships are characterized by actions–the giving, the smiling, and the joking–and not enough by our heart for one another. It’s admittedly easy to act like friends on the surface level and it’s surprisingly difficult to be a genuine friend.

That shows tremendous insight, and is exactly along the lines of what I was feeling and hoping to find addressed elsewhere. It appears he wrote six posts in his series on the Theology of Friendship and I look forward to reading them.

I am no expert on friendship, that’s certain. I surely could have been a better friend on many occasions in my life. Another point “bc” made in his post excerpted above is that pride is the chief reason why there are not more deep, meaningful friendships among men in particular, and I am afraid he is right. After all, a deep and meaningful friendship–an intimate friendship–is one which requires transparency, vulnerability, honesty, patience, forgiveness and more. Indeed, intimate friendship requires many of the same things a successful marriage requires yet without the physical intimacy and without the formalized commitment. Therein, no doubt, is part of the problem–anyone can walk away from a “friend” at any time. There are no strings attached, no contracts to break. When the friend gets on your nerves, or when being his friend becomes unpopular, inconvenient or difficult, why bother? That probably sounds cynical but I would challenge you to reflect on your own life, the friendships you have had, and then tell me you cannot count yourself among the guilty.

While I am no expert on friendship, I am fortunate to claim a number of true friends. Not a lot, mind you, and I do not think it is all that reasonable to imagine that anyone can–should?–have an abundance of intimate friends. But these are friends whom I could tell anything, I think, without fearing that they would abandon me. In fact, I feel confident that, if necessary, they would challenge or confront me, telling me I need to get my act together. I can also say that at least once in my life I was decent enough to be that friend to someone else, and never once did I regret doing so. Sure, there were some awkward times when I was not sure what to say and when I was not sure how he would respond when I did say something, but our friendship endured. Endures.

It was same-sex friendships that got me thinking about this subject, but I am not convinced that intimate friends must be of the same sex. Sure, there are some potential dangers in having an intimate friend of the opposite sex, but the same can be true of same-sex friends. In fact, among my intimate friends I have both men and women. The nature of opposite-sex intimate friendships could no doubt be explored at length, and perhaps I will tackle that someday, too. But not today.

For now, I encourage you to think about whether or not you have any intimate friends and if not, why not. I encourage you, if you are a parent, to teach your children what it means to truly be a friend. If you are a pastor, I encourage you to consider preaching on friendship. If you are not a pastor, I encourage you to ask your pastor to preach on friendship. Oh, and no matter who you are, if you ever do find a really good book on friendship, please share the title with me.

Here’s to friends.

Blog at WordPress.com.