Monday, April 13, 2020

"Christian Sacred Cow" No. 3 — “You never know what God will do.”


In heavily Hindu nations like India, milk holds a central place in religious rituals. In honor of their exalted status as milk producers, cows often roam free even in large cities. Authorities in several cities have tried to remove the cows, but usually they come back. Christians have their own “sacred cows” as well — things we just assume are true, and often say without asking whether they square with the Bible. As we continue our discussion of these Christian “sacred cows,” we turn to the often-heard statement, “You never know what God will do.”

It sounds pious, or religious, to say we don’t know what God will do because we think that expresses our humility in the face of God’s sovereignty, his ability to do whatever he wants to do. In Isaiah 55 God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). And, of course, because “God’s space” is a dimension we can’t access it through our normal senses, we recognize that there are many things about the Creator we’ll never fully understand. But that doesn’t mean we “never know what God will do” — because in many cases he’s told us exactly what he will do.

There shouldn’t be any doubt that he will heal us — in fact, he has healed us — if by faith we take the healing he offers us in Jesus. There should be no doubt that God will bring justice to unjust situations, because as Psalm 103 declares, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6). There ought to be no question in our mind that God will hear our prayers, forgive our sin, and renew our living space according to his purpose — since he tells us, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

The Lord has told us that if we obey his commandments he will make us “the head and not the tail” (Deuteronomy 28:13). So we have no uncertainty about whether God will reward a life of generosity with blessings in return; Paul says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. . . . And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:7, 9). We could go on and on.

And there’s the other side to that equation: foolish actions will bring unpleasant results because that’s the way God has set up the universe. Paul, in Romans 1, calls this “the wrath of God”; but God doesn’t actually have to do anything for the consequences of disobedient and foolish actions to have their effect. As Paul explains, all God has to do is to “give people up” who refuse to acknowledge him, and the effects of their poor choices will play out in their lives because that’s the way his universe works.

So it’s not correct to suggest that God is unpredictable and we don’t know what he’s going to do. We do know, because he’s told us in his Word. God’s purposes aren’t hidden from us. Paul quotes Isaiah 40:13, “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” Then he adds, “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). As members of Jesus we have insight into God’s purposes and intentions. So when people say “You never know what God will do,” that’s another “sacred cow” we can drive off, like the city authorities in India.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Christian Sacred Cow" No. 2 — "This world is not my home."


We continue our discussion of “Christian Sacred Cows,” things believers often say that have taken on the status of truisms but which lack a real biblical foundation. One of these declarations is “This world is not my home — heaven is my home, I’m only passing through.”

Discussing this “sacred cow” is bound to raise some eyebrows because we hear it all the time, especially in a some of our songs including a lot of country “gospel” music. But we have to apply the principle of the Bereans, to “examine the Scriptures to see if these things are so.” Does Scripture really teach that “heaven is our home” and this earth is only a place we pass through on our way there? Let’s take a closer look.

It may shock you to hear that “going to heaven when we die” is not the ultimate goal of the Christian life. The New Testament says little about what happens when we die. Indeed, Paul told the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). But he doesn’t elaborate on exactly what that means, or give us a picture of what it looks like. Several passages in the New Testament tell us that Jesus is seated “at the right hand of God” (Romans 8:34), so we assume that means heaven because heaven is the dwelling place of God.

But what is “heaven”? Obviously it’s not someplace that’s literally “up” above the surface of the earth, because the earth is a ball floating in space. So heaven could be “down” as well as “up.” It’s better to say that heaven is “God’s space,” as contrasted with our space. It’s not “up there” but it’s all around us in a dimension beyond the four dimensions we normally experience. Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If we’re in Jesus, who has been raised from death, then we’ve already been raised and are already “seated with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) — we already participate in God’s space.

The aim of being “saved,” or delivered from the false values of the prevailing culture (see Galatians 1:4) through membership in Jesus, is not so we can “go to heaven when we die.” The aim of our membership in Jesus is to live the resurrection life now, as we anticipate the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan for us.

But what is that plan, as Jesus and the New Testament writers teach it? God’s plan is to merge “his space” with “our space” in the new creation. Often we quote Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, to say that when a person comes into Christ he becomes a “new creature.” But the Greek puts it a little differently: ei tis en Christo, kaine ktisis – “If anyone in the Messiah, a new creation.” There isn’t any “he is” in this sentence. What Paul is saying is that when a person become a member of Jesus, a new creation exists for him, a new way of life in which everything has changed. As members of the risen Jesus we experience a foretaste of our ultimate destiny in the new creation, which is described in the Bible’s final chapters.

The picture many people have of heaven, with the “golden streets” and all that, is actually drawn from the Bible’s picture of the new creation in Revelation 21, the “new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2). But if it’s coming from heaven then it’s not heaven but the renewed earth, which is to be like the earth God originally made, where God dwells with his people as our space merges with his space. So if we say, “Heaven is my home, I’m only passing through,” we have it exactly backwards. Earth is my home, and heaven is where I pass through on the way to my real home in the renewed earth. Heaven is a “holding pattern” until, with Jesus, we “come in for a landing” in our ultimate destination in God’s new creation, here on this earth. We don’t stay in heaven forever. “This world is not my home” is another “sacred cow” we need to put out to pasture.